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Dreamworks, VHS, DVD, R, 1 hr. 53 min.

The Haunting is loosely based upon San Francisco native, Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House. The film begins with the back story of the sensitive and miserable Elanore "Nell" Vance (Lili Taylor), a woman whose youth was sucked away taking care of her overbearing invalid mother. Upon her mother's death, she finds herself without direction and with nowhere to live. At her most vulnerable time she receives a mysterious phone call inviting her to join Dr. Marrow's (Liam Neeson) study on sleep disorders.

The sleep study is just a ruse for Dr. Marrow's real study, Fear. For this study he has carefully selected those he feels will be most susceptible, those suffering from insomnia. To ensure success he places them in the creepiest, most isolated place he can find, Hill House (Harlaxton Manor in the UK). The subjects arrive one by one at Hill House to be greeted by caretakers Mr. Dudley (Bruce Dern) and Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes) who are just as creepy and unsettling as the house itself.

Click image to see photos from "The Haunting"
Click image to see photos from The Haunting 

Nell is joined by Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a sexed up insomniac designer, and Luke (Owen Wilson), a sleepless and cynical psychology grad student who pays for his education by participating in psychological studies.

After the subjects have arrived and settled into the house, Dr. Marrow and his assistants, Todd and Mary, arrive and the Dr. begins to explain to them how the study will work. Still continuing his ruse he carefully explains to them the sad history of Hill House. Sufficiently spooked, they decide to retire for the night. Mary however begins to realize that there is more to this story than at first it seems. She tries to warn the group but the house strikes out at her in the form of a broken piano wire. The house claims its first victim.

Unfortunately, for the guests of Hill House this is just the beginning. They soon realize there is a great mystery and evil force behind Hill House. But will they they be able to solve the mystery and vanquish the evil and still remain alive?

I found The Haunting to be a spectacular horror film. Visually stunning, genuinely scary, and it doesn't have to rely on a high body count, although a few characters fall victim to the house, to grab and keep my attention.

The casting was excellent, Liam Neeson as Dr. Marrow gave a stellar performance. Lili Taylor, whom I've always been a big fan of, brought the tortured soul of Nell to life. I would have liked to see more of Bruce Dern and especially Marian Seldes. Seldes was absolutely perfect and didn't receive enough screen time by far. When you read a horror novel set in New England, she is the old Protestant woman you picture in your mind. 

The visual aspects of the film are remarkable. Phil Tippet, Visual Effects Producer, brought years of experience and expertise to the film. His other notable works include Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers. For obvious reasons, his most impressive contribution is the interior set of Hill House. The massive and intricate set was too large for even the largest Hollywood studios and had to be constructed in the Long Beach Dome that once housed Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. The set is so intricate and detailed that the viewer can literally get lost looking at the screen.

On par with the set are the impressive special effects that realistically and literally bring the house alive. A combination of mechanical and CG, the hand of Industrial Light and Magic shows itself well. Effects are seamless and unique. Particularly impressive were the cherub carvings throughout the house. Bringing these wooden carvings to life added much to the supernatural and surreal look and feel of the film. 

As great as I think The Haunting is there are a few minor points that bother me. First and foremost is Catherine Zeta-Jones' character Theo and her interaction with Nell. A strong and sexy character is fine but the constant lesbian sexual tension between Theo and Nell is both overdone and irrelevant to the story. It doesn't tie back into the plot or sub plots and is more of a distraction than telling us anything interesting about the characters. Obviously a taint from the success of Zena and Ellen. Second is Mrs. Dudley's warning early in the film. It's perhaps the best dialog in the entire film...

"I don't stay after dinner, not after it begins to get dark. I leave, before dark comes, we live in town, nine miles, so there won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't even hear you, in the night... No one could. No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that, in the night, in the dark."

If this warning, with the incredibly fine New England style delivery Marian Seldes gave was left to stand on its own, it would have created a great deal more intensity. Instead, they decided to have this dialog repeated for each of the subjects in the study allowing Nell to mock and make light of the dire warning. I understand that this was to give insight, to the viewer, on the nature of the study but I think they should have gone a different route. 

In conclusion, The Haunting was one of the best horror movies of 1999, and one of the best available on DVD. If you haven't seen The Haunting or haven't seen it recently, get yourself to the video store and pick up a copy. Better yet go out and buy it because you will want to watch it over and over again.

The DVD special features include:

  • Theatrical Teaser
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Behind-the-Scenes Feature
  • Cast & Crew Biographies
  • Production Notes
  • English Subtitles

Do you think we got this movie totally wrong? Agree with us? Or just want everyone to know your thoughts? Then start a discussion of this movie in our forums!

 

QUICK FACTS

Studio

Dreamworks

Genre

Horror

Rating

R

Length

113 Minutes

Color

Yes

Sound

Yes

 

CAST

Actor / Actress

Character

Harlaxton Manor

Hill House

Catherine Zeta-Jones

Theo

Lili Taylor

Elanore Vance "Nell"

Owen Wilson

Luke

Bruce Dern

Mr. Dudley "Caretaker"

Marian Seldes

Mrs. Dudley "Caretaker's Wife"

Liam Neeson

Dr. Marrow

 

CREW

Jan de Bont

Director & Executive Producer

Susan Arnold

Producer

Donna Arkoff Roth

Producer

Eugenio Zanetti

Production Designer

Jerry Goldsmith

Music Composer & Conductor

Gary Rydstrom

Sound

Phil Tippett

Visual Effects Producer

Karl Walter Lindenlaub

Director of Photography

Michael kahn

Editor

Reviewed by: Hauntmaster 4/26/2002

         
 
   

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