“The Daunting” by Scott Mantz

“The Haunting”
Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor
Directed by Jan De Bont

The scariest thing about “The Haunting” was realizing that I shelled out $8.50 of my hard-earned cash to see it. Even though it’s supposed to be a summertime, special effects-laden film (in other words, the kind where you leave your sensibilities at the door), this movie is so bad, it’s almost unwatchable. While it contains a few jump-in-your-seat-scares, it degenerates into a special effects circus ride–the kind where you want to get off. Weighted down by a bad script, slow pace, and lame characters, “The Haunting” simply doesn’t make any sense.

Loosely based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 1963 Robert Wise film it inspired, this version carries none of the psychological spookiness of those efforts. Jan De Bont, the man behind “Twister” and “Speed”, directs his movies with such hyper-kinetic intensity that you don’t realize how bad they are. (OK, maybe we realized how bad “Speed 2” was.). Where the action in those films covered up its flaws by keeping its heroes on the run, this time it takes place in one location. By being confined, De Bont over-compensates on the production values and special effects. The CGI effects, although impressive, don’t offer much in terms of suspense.

Eleanor (Lili Taylor), in a fragile state having just lost her mother, is an insomniac who responds to an ad placed by scientist David Marrow (Liam Neeson) looking to perform tests on people with sleep disorders. She arrives at the old house where the tests will take place and meets fellow insomniacs Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a stylishly dressed bisexual, and Luke (Owen Wilson), a ski bum a long way from the slopes. What they don’t realize is that they are really test subjects in a study of fear.

They spend the first night exploring the house and getting to know its history. The original owner, Hugh McCrain, wanted to fill the house with the laughter of happy children. When his children from his first wife died at birth, he became so bitter that he kidnapped the children that worked at his textile mill. These kids died and are still occupying the house, trapped by the spirit of McCrain. Its up to Eleanor, who has a kinship with the old house, to set the spirits free.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for these characters. They should have been out of there at the first sign of trouble. Why would a study of insomnia take place at an old house in the middle of nowhere? When Marrow confesses to his subjects the true nature of his experiment, they should have stuck together for the duration of the night. Instead they wander back to their cavernous and creepy rooms-alone–to try to get some sleep. Where’s the logic in that?

Lili Taylor and Liam Neeson are accomplished actors who do nothing more than gawk as the events unspool in the big place. The awesomeness of the house and the special effects dwarf the actor’s performances, and good special effects can’t make up for the rest of the film. Today’s technology is so advanced to you expect effects to be top of the line, and you only notice when they’re not.

What we’re left with is a haunted house film that isn’t scary at all. By showing you so much, there is nothing left to sit with the imagination. It’s almost as if they tried to base a serious movie on “The Haunted Mansion” ride from Disneyland instead of the 1959 novel. For a good fright, go rent “The Shining”. Or better yet, check out “The Blair Witch Project”. The cost of that film may be less than the catering bill for “The Haunting”, but the genuine fright lies in what that film doesn’t show you. Or maybe De Bont should have set the film on a haunted bus to keep things moving.