The Haunting – 1999

Director Jan de Bont
Screenplay David Self, Michael Tolkin based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor

The Haunting is the 2nd attempt at putting Shirley Jackson’s book, The Haunting of Hill House. At the time it was highly anticipated, given director de Bont’s track record of successive hits in Speed and Twister. If nothing else, the worst we’d get is a well filmed version of a screenplay by the likes of Tolkin (The Player) and Self (The Road to Perdition). A lot could go wrong but it might be great.

Twenty years later, what we see is a quant, silly film where the actors sleepwalk through their lines for which they were no doubt paid handsomely.

It could be due to the fact that its star, Lili Taylor who plays the innocent, sheltered Eleanor was it a much superior film The Conjuring years later. Perhaps its due to the fact that Mike Flanagan created a classic on the bare crumbs of the story in last years, The Haunting of Hill House.

A ballpark approximation of the book, Taylor does her best to present Eleanor as a warm and inviting person who is opening to the world after so many years watching over an ailing mother. There is a caretaker couple named Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern) which seem as cantankerous as those in the book. Zeta-Jones at least is a slight bit the Theodora of the book. Neeson is a doctor, but is conducting some sort of bogus sleep study. Wilson is just named Luke…

The house is huge, and could be considered creepy on its own. There is a constant sound of wind running in the background, which causes a headache more than anything. The effects of the children are comical. Even the large menacing things are rendered silly by effects that look dated even for their time. There is nothing even remotely scary. Once Nell begins to take charge, there is nothing more for the film to offer.

De Bont’s career was finished just one film later with the sequel to Jolie’s Lara Croft film. Then he receded into the background. There is very little in this film that rises to the caliber of the cinematographer of the original Die Hard, Speed and Twister.

There is one point, when the inhabitants are locked into the property and Luke decides to ram the gates with a car. The resulting crash is almost as comical looking as the AMC Gremlin-looking auto Wilson is driving. How is this the same guy that had filmed anything from Twister?

Nell’s crappy car.

There was a time I looked forward to a Jan de Bont film. Even knowing that Speed 2 wasn’t well received, I thought the cast of The Haunting would bring him back to prominence. I should have taken the prominent cast as a warning.

Self got sole credit for the film at time of release. It was his first screenplay and he was nominated for a Golden Raspberry (along with many other participants of the film). He went on to make three good films (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days and an uncredited draft of The Bourne Identity) in 2 years, then one huge disappointment (The Wolfman).

Perhaps this is the kind of film that should have ended careers. Its the kind of film routinely pumped out by studios even today, just with less expensive talent. Back in the day, they called them payday films and this did make money, at least on paper.

This is a bad movie. Really it’s more sad than anything. The talent involved has done good work in other projects. Who is responsible? I am not sure. I just know I am responsible for giving it a try 20 years later. It’s time I will never get back. Be warned and keep the gate locked.

(* out of ******)

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