Digital effects becoming a monster

November 18, 1999|By Eric Harrison | Eric Harrison,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- Filmmakers sometimes go overboard in using digital effects, says production designer Eugenio Zanetti. An example is "The Haunting," the summer movie Zanetti designed for DreamWorks about a haunted house.

The $80 million film, directed by Jan De Bont, garnered lots of attention for its spectacular sets and special effects. But the movie did not do well financially, and many critics said it paled in comparison to the much less explicit original, made in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise. Not only is most of the scary stuff left to the viewer's imagination in the earlier movie, but that film also suggests that nearly all of the ghostly manifestations exist only in the mind of the troubled main character, played by Julie Harris.

The horrors all are graphically presented in the remake. The house is filled with the ghosts of dead children, and it features a gigantic, ornate bed that threatens to imprison star Lili Taylor in a claw-like device. A computer-generated ghost stalks the corridors.

Zanetti's audacious designs drew lots of attention, but he acknowledges that much of it was wrong for the movie.

The house in the original novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson, was the projection of the main character's psychological anguish involving issues of guilt and an absent father, he says. "You try to design everything around that," he says, explaining how he wanted to approach the movie. "If everything happens in the woman's mind, there's no monster in the house, no ghost. But I remember [DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg] saying people love ghosts, which is true." And so De Bont's version became a special-effects spectacle in which -- as many critics observed -- the effects not only did not serve the story, they fought against it. This is typical of the way movies get made in Hollywood, says Zanetti, whose background is in the Italian theater. "It was a conceptual problem. There is always the problem of understanding what is literal and what is mythical in film."

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