Don't lose sleep over `Haunting'

Review: Unsubtle directing and silly effects add up to a bad dream that won't end.

July 23, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

I've been having the most disturbing recurring nightmare this week. I've been dreaming that some mutton-headed director kidnaps some really decent actors and puts them in the worst movie of their careers.

It starts with Jan De Bont, who made a couple of decent action movies ("Speed," "Twister") and one really bad one ("Speed 2"), and in the dream he has decided to remake Robert Wise's classic 1963 horror flick "The Haunting," which was a really neat psychological spooker.

But of course, because this is De Bont, he approaches the classic haunted-house screamer with all the finesse of a wrecking ball. So he makes the creepy abode a ridiculous-looking Xanadu with too many turrets, a fireplace big enough to burn a sled in and lots of cartoonish gargoyles and griffins -- and not an ounce of character.

But it gets worse. Because then he puts a really decent actor, Liam Neeson, in the house as a doctor researching group hysteria, and he puts some other good actors, like Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson, in there as his unwitting subjects. And -- this is really weird -- Catherine Zeta-Jones is there, too, as another subject, and she walks around the dream with absolutely no discernible purpose except to show her cleavage!

After the actors prowl around the house's corridors and tell each other spooky stories about the dead owner and his dead children and his dead wife, they all go to sleep in their respective bedrooms, and that's when the movie gets so dumb that it could only happen in a dream.

Taylor, who plays a sweetly dim, naive woman named Nell, is visited by all sorts of goblins and ghosts, but the thing is that De Bont makes them so literal with state-of-the-art special effects that they just look silly! I mean, hello! At a time when "The Blair Witch Project" has raised the stakes of movie horror, what kind of filmmaker would think that a house making sounds like a dying mammoth would actually scare anybody?

While Nell is communing with the other side, Neeson's character, Dr. Marrow, runs around after her, screaming her name, which I must have subconsciously picked up from when he played another doctor yelling the name of another sweetly dim, naive character named Nell, who was played by Jodie Foster.

Anyway, in between statues coming alive and sculptures grabbing at people and walls undulating, there are some kind-of funny moments from Wilson, who was so good in that tiny movie "Bottle Rocket." And I'm trying to laugh but I can't, because it isn't funny enough in that B-movie way to be camp.

And I'm trying to will myself to wake up, but I can't, because De Bont won't let me! And I'm trying to get in the spirit of the thing, but De Bont keeps ruining the suspense with his stupid effects. I mean, the scariest Gremlin in "The Haunting" is the one that Taylor's character drives!

In the dream it finally comes crashing down, with Taylor going mano-a-mano with the dead house owner and Neeson and Zeta-Jones standing around like pieces of furniture. And I'm thinking, "Lili Taylor is such a good actress, and she has to do swill like this to get a leading role?" And I'm thinking about "The Phantom Menace" and wondering if anyone remembers when Liam Neeson used to be an actor.

And then I think about De Bont and how some people simply live for the lowest common denominator and how they're allowed to spend millions of dollars on pure, unadulterated bilge and most likely will continue to make pure, unadulterated bilge long into the next century.

And that's when I wake up screaming.

`The Haunting'

Starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Directed by Jan De Bont

Released by Dreamworks Pictures

Rated PG-13 (intense horror sequences)

Running time 117 minutes

Sun score *

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