First there was a novella, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Four years later, in 1963, Robert Wise directed The Haunting, a wide-screen, black-and-white movie based on Jackson's book, with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom memorable as a pair of psychic women who visit a haunted house in New England. Now, 36 years later, we have an update of The Haunting, directed by Jan De Bont of Speed and Twister fame, and, as with those two recent movies, all the stops are pulled out to provide a state-of-the-art, slam-bang movie experience.
In De Bont's Haunting, shy, fragile Nell (Lili Taylor), stylish, outgoing Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and bright, mischievous Luke (Owen Wilson) are invited to the fabled Hill House by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), for what is characterized as a sleep-disorder study. Welcomed to the mansion by the unpleasant caretaker Mr. Dudley (a demented-looking Bruce Dern) and the grave housekeeper Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes, in a wicked turn), the young trio are awed by the ornate beauty of the 130-year-old house, which they set out to explore with enthusiasm. Theo describes the place as 'Charles Foster Kane Meets The Munsters,' but Hill House is more than a mansion. It's a somber, mysterious setting and the three young people are unsure as to what they're getting into. But, as Dr. Marrow observes, 'You don't tell the rats they're actually in a maze.'
The concept of manipulated characters in a forbidding, controlled space is as old as the earliest horror movies, but rarely has that space been as fascinating to look at as it is here. Production designer Eugenio Zanetti is a world-class artist-he won a 1997 Oscar for Restoration and was nominated the following year for his astonishing work on the otherwise torturous What Dreams May Come-and his beautifully nightmarish Hill House design, with its surreal moving parts, is absolutely stunning.
With his authority and soft-spoken demeanor, Neeson is a good choice to play the enigmatic scientist who is really exploiting his subjects for a book on human fear. Taylor's timid Nell enlists our concern, even if her character-the protagonist of the book-isn't fleshed-out enough. In contrast, Zeta-Jones struts around the mansion like she owns the place, dressed to kill and nailing her laugh lines like a champ.
The 1963 Haunting is still remembered fondly (mostly by critics) for its atmosphere and the performances of its two female leads, but, low-key as director Wise might have been, he, too, was not above a certain amount of excess, relying on distorting camera lenses and the cranking up of volume on music and special effects. Still, Wise had nothing on De Bont, whose Haunting is a loud, dizzying tornado of sound and visuals that often subtracts from, rather than adds to, the story's impact. Eventually, the 'new and improved' Haunting comes down to a none-too-fierce Lili Taylor squaring off against a cursed house and bellowing: 'Purgatory's over, you go to hell!' Maybe they're already thinking sequel.