This is a hauntingly good tale updated for extra eeriness with top notch ’90’s special effects. It is in keeping with the 1963 original in that the true star of the film is the house itself. But what it lacks is all the delicious subtext of the original involving the characters.
The original “The Haunting” is one of my all-time favorites. Based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson called “The Haunting of Hill House”, it used eerie music, obtuse camera angles and flash editing to achieve a startingly scary film while today’s version is chock full of eye-dazzling special effects and characters who reveal only surface qualities.
Eleanor (played here by Lili Taylor – Julie Harris in the original), also called Nell, is a lonesome woman who spent the last eleven years caring for her bedridden mother. While Taylor is quite good in the role as the one around whom the story (and house) revolves, you get none of the psychological depth to reveal the character’s drive and motivation. Whereas in the book and the original version, Eleanor has been so deeply affected and abused through her entire life that she looks to the house for a permanent loving embrace … to belong to something. In this version, her calling is to save murdered children held captive by “the house”.
The failing is due largely to the fact that the story has been severely altered. The characters are not here to study psychic phenomena in a haunted mansion. The Liam Neeson character of Dr. Merrill has concocted a story about a sleep disorder experiment involving the trio of insomniacs (Eleanor, Theo (played here by Catherine Zeta-Jones – Claire Bloom in the original) and Luke (Owen Wilson taking the Russ Tamblyn part) but in reality he’s there to study their reaction to fear. Why does Merrill keep telling his insomiac associates to ‘get a good night’s sleep’, knowing full well that they can’t; but oddly enough they do, all except for Eleanor who’s keeps getting awakened by someone or something.
The original story centered on the psychic awareness of the two women with Luke being an heir to Hill House, there to protect his interests. Neeson’s Dr. Merrill is also fairly boring. In the original, there was a kind of sexual attraction/ energy between his character and that of Eleanor. Something that put Theo at odds with Eleanor and lent itself to more psychological conflict as Eleanor sought to defend herself against Theo’s accusations. All that’s missing here. The loss of the psychic angle takes the edge off their interactions with one another especially since Theo is supposed to have a psychic connection to Eleanor. Had this version kept all those little tensions and intrigues intact it would have made for a more spectacular film, given the already top-notch special effects.
Zeta-Jones’ character seems to be there largely to display her good looks and terrific wardrobe, not to work as Eleanor’s counterpoint which was so important in the orginal.
Minus the obvious tongue-in-cheek humor, this is very reminiscent of the recent version of “The Mummy” with regard to special effects.
Lotta says why didn’t they release this one at Halloween? It’s enjoyable and good scary family fare. Ten to fifteen minutes shorter, though, would have tightened its belt from one-too-many screaming-walls