Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Haunting (1999)

The Haunting. Directed by Jan de Bont & Written by David Self and Michael Tolkin.

Preconceptions: As I mentioned last week, I've been getting all Shirley Jackson'd up (well I was until a Feast with Dragons and Wine arrived in my mailbox, anyways) and had a hankering to see some of the movies based on her books. Fortunately, terrible high school classwork hadn't ruined many of her stories for me, so I was able to read the Haunting of Hill House with fresh eyes (many thanks to the internet's own Mal for reminding me to read this and quit being such a horror philistine). Quite a few of my favourite writers have ripped off (oh I'm sorry, been inspired by) this particular novella. It's no wonder. Really, if you haven't read it, pick it up. It's creepy and ridiculously influential on the way people write horror today. Given my enthusiasm for the story, I was excited to see the two movie versions. Typically, I do the usual read the book, see the original movie, then see the re-make, but I thought I'd shake it up a bit and see the later version first this time around. Plus, I thought there was a chance of seeing Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones make out (since he's obviously more her cup of tea than Owen Wilson, har-dee-har).

General Review
: A
s usual, I'll try and keep any and all bitching about the movie not holding a candle to the book at a minimum. I will say that while I didn't mind some of the plot tweeks to make it a modern story, I did mind the subtlety and quiet creepiness being removed. Losing the sinister angles and adding scary babies was lame (though, I'll admit that frightening geometry is a favourite of mine and not something I'm sure can be done successfully in a movie).

The acting was...not good. With the exception of Liam Neeson, this was not a well seasoned cast. I've liked all of these guys in other roles, but their performances in this were about as dynamic as 80's sitcom actors. I guess, it can be chalked down to lack of experience, but really, who thought it would be a good idea to put this much inexperience in a multi-million dollar movie? Sure, Zeta-Jones was playing a shallow, surface character, but it felt less like she was playing and more like she was wandering on, delivering her lines and wandering off. Wilson was worse still, he mostly just yelled and flailed. Lili Taylor's (playing Nell, our haunted ingenue) quick changes between dreamy and purposeful were alright, but lost all punch when faced with the hollow responses of the rest of the cast. Ugh and let us not dwell on Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes (playing the housekeepers), Seldes certainly didn't sell my least favourite line of the book (you know the one I mean "in the night, in the dark"). Overall, the cast gave the Haunting the feel of a play that unwilling teens had been forced to put on, not something someone would pay to see.

The set was undeniably beautiful. It took elements from the book and probably Hell House (which cribbed lovingly from the Haunting of Hill House) and the Winch
ester Mansion. The house had more character than any of the people running around in it. It was Gothic, sprawling and imposing both outside and in. The rooms were ridiculously lush and decadent and a wonderful place for scary things to happen. But even this gorgeous construction had its faults. The carved art was too overtly unsettling by half. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief enough to accept that someone (even an evil millionaire) would want big carvings of dead and dying guys in the middle of their house. Sure, spooky is good, but that and the twirling mirror room with the organ grinder music were simply too much.

Speaking of simply too much: the music. The score was distracting and overpowering. It was constantly swelling or resting for just a moment so that it could swell again. Every time an actor was stumbling through some sort of emotion, the score saw fit to remind us what that was. Any time something frightening happened, it would roar "THIS IS SCARY!" at the audience, because ghosts trying to kill people isn't obvious enough. Jerry Goldsmith needed to tone it the hell down.

Some of the special effects were also pretty impressive. Sure, ten years leaves a few of them looking dated, but most were successfully ambitious and hold up well. The animated statues were particularly good. My favourite sequence, hands down, was in a scene where Taylor is looking at herself in a series of mirrors. One of the reflections smiles at her and then each one slightly alters her appearance as she walks past them. These were some of the only genuinely unsettling moments in the movie. Unfortunately, I can't seem to offer any praise in this review that isn't leavened with criticism. Our main ghost, Hugh Crain, looked crappy throughout. The design of the character certainly didn't help (a bit like a shaggier Cowardly Lion), but while most of the CG in this was graceful and fairly well integrated, he looked fake. I'm hardly a stickler for movies being identical to the books they're based on. Sometimes, the most enjoyable adaptations aren't the ones that copy the novel by rote, but rather take inspiration from source text. The Haunting didn't do either. It took bits of the story and then generally simplified and de-spooked the rest. There were very few things worth praising about this boring, poorly constructed pile. I can only hope that I did myself a favour by getting it out of the way and that I'm going to be blown away by the 1963 version.

No comments:

Post a Comment