July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The scariest thing about The Haunting is how awful it is. No, worse than awful: desperate. It’s a horror flick afraid of its own audience, as lost in its own geography as the fictional film crew in The Blair Witch Project. But where the disorientation of the Blair Witch kids leads fright lovers to a novel experience of terror and suggests an inventive new direction for the genre, the cluelessness of The Haunting — a production grounded in old-fashioned horror conventions but undone by a new-fashioned, know-it-all attitude — points to the death of spookiness.

It didn’t have to be this way. Shirley Jackson’s eerie 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, tells of a trio of guests under the observation of a ”doctor of philosophy” who gathers his subjects at the eponymous mansion to study ”the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as ‘haunted.”’ Eleanor, also called Nell, is a fearful spinster who has sacrificed her own happiness to care for a hateful, invalid mother, now dead; Theodora, who calls herself Theo, is a brazen, provocative sybarite, attracted to women as well as men; Luke is a flip and boorish manipulator who (in Jackson’s book) also stands to inherit Hill House someday.

For the author, The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story but it’s also, clearly, a journey of psychological and sexual awakening — especially for the virginal Eleanor, who hears the spirits of the place calling to her. When, in thrall to voices (and her psyche), she ascends a perilous spiral staircase in an ”intoxicating” climb with the doctor in manly pursuit, that’s suspense — but it’s also sex, baby. And Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of the book, The Haunting, in Bergmanesque black and white, teases out the Freudian implications of every gargoyle with the kind of intense regard only an entire movie industry engrossed in psychoanalysis could produce. (You haven’t seen a groovy insinuation of lesbianism until you’ve seen Claire Bloom as Theo, dressed head to toe in Mary Quant, sidling up to Julie Harris’ Nell.)

But — to quote David Self’s dull-edged script in this latest, anti-analytical update — what is wrong with you people? With Freudian subtext gone the way of I’m OK, You’re OK and pre-ironic moviegoing innocence subverted by Scream and its ilk, there’s little left to interest us, let alone haunt us, in The Haunting. Sure, there are movie stars, emoting madly when not tossing off jaunty one-liners. And there are plenty of frightfully busy sets, made even busier when they come alive — sculptures lunging, walls pulsing, floorboards popping, that sort of thing — via computer-generated showmanship.

But psychological depth — you know, something to push our fear buttons in the first place? Sorry, too risky to take on. Better to coast on the limited charms of Liam Neeson as the doctor (am I dreaming or did Neeson not say after The Phantom Menace that he never wanted to act in front of a blue screen again? Please?), Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo (”You don’t get this from a Martha Stewart catalog!” she says, witlessly, about Hill House’s outré decor), miscast indie-style player Owen Wilson as Luke (”Teletubbies freak me out,” he says, idiotically, as if a pop-cultural reference will make The Haunting hip for the kiddies), and Lili Taylor as Eleanor.

”I can be a victim or I can be a volunteer. I’m gonna be a volunteer!” Nell declares with the fervor of an Oprah booster while Taylor, her signature mix of sadness and swagger wasted in this silliness, opens her eyes wide upon hearing the voices of ghostly tots. Indeed, our Nell is keen on saving children — an altruistic activity born of a boring Freud-lite tenderness for one’s inner child rather than any impulse more intriguingly sinister. She also runs down hallways a lot. Many, many hallways. At a good pace, as befits the direction of Jan De Bont, Speed freak.

But too much velocity and the high winds of Twister have apparently resulted in De Bont’s temporary inability to sit still; instead, he has managed to make hallway running feel slow. Prowling from one giant close-up of a face to another, he barely has time for the pain. (Zeta-Jones to Neeson! Neeson to Wilson! Taylor to the creepy caretaker played by Bruce Dern!) It’s as if the director himself feels the clammy hands of studio indecision tightening around his throat.

No wonder the audience laughs derisively through scenes not meant for laughter. That isn’t the acrid odor of fear we smell in this house of horrors. It’s flop sweat. D

Jan de Bont
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