Movie Postmortems: THE HAUNTING

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: The Haunting

THE CASE HISTORY: 1998. Two horror projects featuring “evil houses” are announced for release in 1999. The first is a medium-budget remake of Vincent Price’s 1959 cult favorite, House on Haunted Hill. The other: a big-budget re-do of Robert Wise’s 1963 classic, The Haunting. Based on Shirley Jackson’s eerie novel about four paranormal investigators studying a sinister house in rural New England, the latter is the more pedigreed of the two and will be released by DreamWorks Pictures. None other than Steven Spielberg is one of the producers. His involvement bodes well: Spielberg’s last Haunted House flick was 1982’s popular Poltergeist.

Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, and Owen Wilson are cast in the roles previously filled by Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, and Russ Tamblyn.  Stepping into the driver’s seat formerly occupied by Wise is cinematographer-turned-action movie director Jan DeBont (he was the cinematographer of Die Hard). His past directing credits are the well-received Speed and Twister – and the less well-received Speed 2. With his action background, DeBont seems an unusual choice to helm a brooding, ambiguous tale of slow-burn supernatural terror. This is the first sign that Spielberg and the studio may be taking the remake in another direction.

July 1999. The Haunting opens wide in North America and nabs about $33 million (over $60 million today) in its first weekend. This is an excellent bow and further proof that the Horror Genre is alive again. Unfortunately, reviews are mixed to negative. While some critics praise its cast and various technical aspects, most compare The Haunting unfavorably to its 1963 predecessor. The movie ultimately grosses a domestic total of around $91 million (just over its budget of $80 million) for a global total of about $170 million. Given The Haunting’s high production costs and marketing hype this is considered modest success at best. The mostly lukewarm and cool reviews seal the disappointment.

What the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Making an effective horror movie takes specific skills and techniques. Shaping dread and atmosphere, structuring scares to build on one another to create rising tension, carefully using the visual field of the screen to keep audiences unsettled – these are not necessarily requirements of other genres. However, for horror films – especially Haunted House flicks – they are crucial. Unfortunately, what The Haunting needed but did not get is the guiding hand of a true horror auteur like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, or Tobe Hooper.

Jan DeBont is  a talented film director and his other flicks bristle with kinetic intensity. Speed, Twister, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and even Speed 2 are all exciting, fast-paced action extravaganzas. However, those were action thrill rides and DeBont’s blunt approach was suited for them. For The Haunting, though, his direct, matter-of-fact style is not ideal because it fails to create fear. The script is technically fine but its execution should have been more artful and subtle. Instead, the end result is as obvious and straightforward as a theme park ride.

To be fair to DeBont, though, there were reports that DreamWorks was eager to cash in on the latest CGI advancements at the time and probably hired DeBont exactly because of his action cred. The intent reportedly was to show what the original film only hinted at. Unfortunately, these effects (ghostly shapes behind sheets and curtains, statues that move, walls that attack, etc.) are a bit too cartoony and wear out their welcome fast. Essentially, the CGI special effects do all the heavy lifting which is a mistake.

What the original film got that the remake forgot: anything left to the imagination can be far more terrifying than anything actually shown. Shame, because as mentioned above the script is solid and had potential. The remake improves upon the original in one important area that redeems the film: Lili Taylor’s touching performance as the troubled Eleanor Vance who is drawn to Hill House, perhaps fatally. Julie Harris was a bit shrill and almost unsympathetic in the first movie. Taylor, on the other hand, gives Eleanor a quiet, wounded dignity that gives this version of The Haunting something of an emotional center.    

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: The best Haunted House films abide by the tenet of “Less Is More.”  It is certainly something The Haunting 1963 faithfully adhered to. Unfortunately, The Haunting 1999 opted for “More Is More” and “The Louder The Better.” The result is a handsome Haunted House film that is constantly watchable and occasionally engaging – but does not have a single genuine scare. Lili Taylor deserves high praise, however, for being the powerful engine that keeps this movie from going off the rails.

NEXT CASUALTY: Grease 2 – “The Music And Feeling Go On Forever…

…well, maybe not. The first Grease is one of cinema history’s most beloved musicals and was the biggest hit of 1978 (even bigger than Superman). A sequel seemed like a great idea. Except this 1982 follow-up disappeared so fast from theaters most audiences forget it even exists. While Grease 2 may have given the talented Michelle Pfeiffer her big break it is notable for very little else. What the hell happened at Rydell High?

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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