Fear Be Not Wise

The Haunting
area theaters

Okay, biases up front. I prefer my horror either fresh off the hook and bloody (e.g., The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or subtly, lingeringly cooked, with the chef's mess kept out of sight in a distant kitchen (à la Hitchcock or even The Blair Witch Project). The Haunting, starring Liam Neeson and Lili Taylor, is a remake of a 1963 film that boasted one modest death, via car crash. While the 1999 version adds a smidgen of gore, it's hardly graphic. Unfortunately, neither is it sneakily illusive, elusive, or eerie. Could I expect any less from action-adventure director Jan De Bont, whose "more is more" buffalo stance made thundering hits of Speed and Twister?

Based, like the original film, on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by suspense maven Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"), The Haunting corrals a few luckless folk in a gloomy Berkshires mansion. The improbable angle this time is that Dr. David Marrow (Neeson) has gathered three insomniacs for an isolated investigation of their complaint. The guinea pigs don't know he's really interested in human fear. And the doctor doesn't know that one of the subjects, Eleanor (Taylor), may have a blood connection to this haunted house. Owen Wilson plays Luke, a jocky-cocky loudmouth who telegraphs "victim" from the word go. Luke soon has the hots for Catherine Zeta-Jones's Theo, a flamboyant beauty whom the script has graciously updated from harassing lesbian psychic to cheery bisexual.

True to this Scream horror era, De Bont starts out mocking the conventions: A wild-haired and -eyed Bruce Dern steps forward as the ghoulish caretaker Mr. Dudley; skull-faced Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes) intones her expected warnings at a campily funereal pace; characters run into each other in the house's vast, dark halls and squeal. When the intentionally scary stuff begins, however, it tends to come off more goofy than gothic. Crouched in their Victorian-bordello bedrooms as huge thumps rattle the doors and the temperature drops, Eleanor and Theo expel puffs of breath so white and dense they look like cartoon thought balloons. (Eleanor: "God, are computer graphics lame." Theo: "Yeah, but they're so fun to play with!")

At least at this point you don't see the house's haunts. Soon enough, though, De Bont and his special-effects fiends are morphing faces out of sheets and drapes, and living creatures out of cruel statues and portraits. If a mark of an audience's terror is jeering laughter, De Bont may well have another hit on his hands. Seriously--there's nothing even vaguely frightening about these ultrasmooth digital visual effects, except for the idea that someone actually thought they would frighten. When a statue rears up and throttles the good doctor, it looks about as real as the interactions between Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in Space Jam. I guess you could scare yourself a bit by reading the digitalized ghoulies as the stormtroopers of some virtual world of the future, where real-life physical awkwardness and random grace has been conquered by programmed regularity. But I don't think De Bont had the rights to Matrix 2: The Prequel. The Haunting does offer some grist for the metamill: De Bont, like Neeson's doctor, is experimenting with anachronistic human fears (why the horror in a horror film?), and we viewers are the director's subjects. Near the beginning, Dr. Marrow avows: "You don't tell the rats they're actually in a maze." The script's irony is that he's in there with them. And the movie's irony is that the intended rats--the audience--never enter the maze: The filmmakers are so caught up in creating the damn thing that they forget to leave any bait.

The bait, of course, is mystery. How was this house, per the tag line, "born bad"? In Robert Wise's 1963 film, the house simply chews up all comers, from its creator to its visitors. It has no justification: It simply hates. And unresolved evil is disturbing. When the lonely Eleanor forms a bond with the house in the original, it remains unexplained whether she's being destroyed by something icky, responding to something desperate, or simply going bonkers. De Bont and screen adaptor David Self try to improve on that freaky ambiguity with a whole line of sentimental crap about an abusive mill owner with a taste for child killing, Eleanor as his great-great-great-granddaughter, and her arrival at his house as some sort of spiritual salvation for all the little lost lambs. It's as if The Shining revealed that Jack was Hitler in his previous life. In a horror film, you don't need a back-story to understand that patriarchy sucks.

 
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