by Philip Bender
A guilty pleasure…
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Okay. Every reviewer in the world has panned this movie. Review after review has pointed out the faults of Twister director Jan De Bonts’ latest film—not that it doesn’t have some—but you can actually enjoy this movie if you make peace with yourself about the fact that it ain’t trying to be art. How could it be—Tom Hanks isn’t in it.
I went into The Haunting expecting another Hollywood special effects movie, a la Death Becomes Her, or The Frighteners. Having read the reviews, I anticipated 2 hours of CGI magic with a banal cast pretending to be afraid (they did) of inanimate objects that would later be edited out. With a few exceptions, I was mildly (and somewhat guiltily) surprised. Many of the major points of the movie are presented like a sledgehammer to the forehead, but there were a few visceral thrills to be had.
Let’s get the bad points out of the way. First of all, as a voracious reader, I treasure the original Shirley Jackson novel on which this movie is loosely based. Some of the plot elements ring true, but it’s a far cry from Ms. Jackson’s moody and atmospheric novel.
Secondly, you can’t actually like any of the characters. The most interesting characters are removed from the main plot early on.
Third, the evil entity—the monsterous businessman who built the house—who appears in a sinister portait and in various spectral scenes throughout the movie, looks like a cross between John Houseman and a Pomeranian. Theoretically, this character built the house for his wife—the town beauty—and the hordes of children they were hoping for. I personally am unable to swallow the idea that any woman would marry anything this ugly or put children into a house that the Addams Family would run from.
Finally, there is some acting which, while I wouldn’t call it bad, I would call it unconvincing. It’s hard to be scared when the people who are supposed to be scared don’t look it.
The story goes like this: Leading the cast is Lili Taylor as Eleanor—a meek and downtrodden spinster who has suffered through eleven years of caring for an invalid and demanding mother. After the death of her mother, Eleanor (or Nell, later) has been set adrift in life, not knowing what her PURPOSE is without her mother to care for. She volunteers for an insomnia-research experiment to be held at a secluded manor house in the Berkshires, led by rugged-but-naughty research scientist Liam Neeson.
Liam has ULTERIOR MOTIVES, you see. His little insomnia experiment is actually a smokescreen for a study of the psychology of fear. He has a research assistant who knows the truth—and who, surprisingly, has some psychic abilities (or is she executing the doctor’s program of fear?) displayed a little later in the film. Unfortunately, this potentially promising character says bad things about the house and is summarily taken out of the film by an unfortunate harpsichord accident.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is Theo, another willing experiment subject. Theo is a jaded Big-City bisexual, who primps around the house in Prada boots. While she ultimately becomes COMPASSIONATE through her concern for Nell (who is targeted by the house when other people aren’t around), Theo fails to look even remotely frightened as major portions of the house are blowing up in her face or chasing our hapless heroes.
Owen Wilson plays Luke, the third and final insomniac in Liam’s hapless party. Owen is a SKEPTIC and plays the lust-struck lothario to Theo in the beginning of the movie. He appears to lose interest after little Nell begins to lose her mind.
I found Luke to be the hardest character to assimilate. Aside from some wooden acting when things are going awry, he is a rather bothersome character. One of the strangest things about him is his nose. His otherwise handsome, blonde-haired, blue-eyed features are anchored by the strangest looking nose I have ever seen. All I could remember about this guy in any scene was, “did Karl Malden’s nose start that way?” I’m sorry, but the nose really freaked me out—it was the most frightening part of the movie for me.
As the characters settle into the house, a veritable Disneyland of the Damned unfolds on the screen. The house looks like Hieronymus Bosch had gone into architecture instead of painting. The interiors are a combination of Moorish/Gothic/Art Nouveau and would send any rational person packing before the sun ever set.
As the plot unfolds, Nell discovers that hordes of children have been murdered by the monstrous owner, and they all, monster and children alike, still inhabit the house. In a race against time, Nell is urged on by the children to find their secrets—and their remains.
Oh…by the way, the house continues to try to kill her and her companions along the way.
The ending of the movie is somewhat disappointing. After all of the interesting and fun effects of the preceding 110 minutes, the final effects make you wonder if the CGI folks pulled an all-nighter to rush this film out—like a cram session before a final exam.
And in the “oh-by-the-way” category, Bruce Dern turns in two cameos as the caretaker at the beginning and end of the film. They needn’t have bothered, as he did absolutely nothing for the film. Equally disappointing, Dern’s movie-wife offers a glimpse of Hitchcock’s sinister Mrs. Danvers, but she is also taken from us much too soon.
Jerry Goldsmith provides an interesting and atmospheric score for the movie that is in turns appropriate and annoying. His efforts to support the suspense that unfolds is punctuated by some jarring “effect” music that is rather unnerving.
If you want to be truly scared, this movie isn’t going to do it for you. I only came out of my seat twice—once for a truly surprising effect involving a skeleton; the second was to address a Jumbo-Big-Gulp-induced nose-powdering crisis. There is some decent suspense generated through the plot-line, but few real spine-tinglers.
I’d give The Haunting a better-than-average rating, only because there’s enough sensory-candy to keep you involved. Don’t feel compelled to rush to your theater—this will be on video soon enough. But if you have an afternoon to kill, catch a reduced-price matinee to enjoy the luxury of the big-screen and allow yourself the pleasure of a guilty little escape from reality.
Philip Bender is a marketing and PR consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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