The Haunting

Photo: Frank Masi
TM & © Dreamworks LLC
Photo courtesy United International Pictures (Netherlands)

Shirley, don't ask! Director Jan de Bont has made some excellent cinema; then there is "The Haunting". An excellent example to show why is a questionable quest to attempt the "re- make" of an already brilliantly delivered piece of cinema (1963) has resulted in a horrifying catastrophe. The original, directed by no less than Robert Wise, sported most noticeably the talents of Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. As I recall, the reviews at the time were not united in praise of the film, but Life magazine ran a photo article focusing especially on the transformation of the little girl into an old woman within a matter of seconds. This feat, achieved through cross-fades, would not impress an audience anno 1999, but was sufficient to awaken the interest of myself as well as, undoubtedly, numerous others. What awaited the first lucky viewers of this magnificent and tense drama of the dark side was an unexpected treat on the giant screen of the Radio City Music Hall. One of those moments one never forgets. As opposed to the version now on show which will undoubtedly one day be relegated to the dusty shelves or, at most, serve as a case study in contrast. (For more on this, please refer to both the Green Emerald list as well as my analysis of the Wise version of "The Haunting".

Before embarking on a discussion of the new version, however, it is necessary to pay homage to Mrs. Jackson, the writer of the original novel as well as many other classic tales of horror. This amiable suburbanite, housewife and mother (she wrote books about children too, including "Raising Demons") had a mind that developed some of the most curious, inventive, and thrilling tales. Her appearance on the literary scene was announced by that memorable short story "The Lottery" which was destined not only to become a selection for many anthologies and an item on teaching lists, but also recently a second-rate television movie. And here we encounter an immense problem with the adaptation of Ms. Jackson's works in the recent past. The essence is gone. Not only has it disappeared, but what might remain of it is smothered either by nonsensical visitors and love interests (as in "The Lottery") or beaten out of shape by extraneous special effects and twisted into a tale which bears little resemblance to the original and manages to miss the point completely. We should also take note, that, in the past two decades, at least two renowned writers have seen fit to "lend" Ms. Jackson's original concept in "The Lottery" to their own novels which became, as a result, realized cinematically at a much earlier date than her piece. It seems that "sampling" is nothing new. Let us, rather, all pause a second in the corridors of terror for the brilliant name of Shirley Jackson.

Without spending time comparing the two movie versions, which would take too much time and space for the present purpose, let us wander through the 1999 maze laid out before us and see how it leads us into oblivion.

Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) meets up with three volunteers for an experimental psychiatric study. Neither the highly-sensitive and very lonely Nell (Lili Taylor), the outgoing bisexual Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) or the sometimes nervous, always cynical Luke (Owen Wilson) know the actual objective of the study, but each one believes that the object is to analyze sleep disorder. (Please try to stay awake until things get rolling.) Whereas, in both the original novel and movie, the two female characters are indisputably "outsiders" who possess special gifts (ESP and mind-reading) while the visiting young man is a playboy and sole inheritor of the house, this version seems content to throw all three of them into a situation where each suffers from bad sleep, keeps telling us about their problems, but always manages to maintain a "you-know-I'm- really-just-a-normal-kind-of-guy-or-gal" attitude (which one assumes is supposed to make them capable of relating to) and ultimately succeeds in showing us how boring they all are. Even Neeson moves around through this house of ghosts like a wet sheet. Lili Taylor is the only one who manages to act her way through the dialogue, but has unfortunately been typecast once again in the kind of role we now recognize her in. She seems capable of much more and hopefully will get the chance to prove it in the future.

A crane shot reminiscent of the opening (and closing) of "Rosemary's Baby" introduces us to the majestic domain of Hugh Crain (rather suitable, don't you think?). Hitchcock-like zooms and in-riders create visual suspense throughout, often when there is no other suspense available. Much of the first half hour is spent travelling through a household maze: mincing memories of the garden and hotel in "The Shining," the corridors of "In The Name of the Rose" and passageways with chambers that combines the best of "Stangers on a Train" with "Lady from Shanghai".

A portrait of Mr. Crain dominates the main stairway, from which position he frowns upon all in ascendance, like an apparition drawn somewhere between an enraged Henrik Ibsen (regarding the portrait of Strindberg) and a half dissolute Hurd Hatfield captured on canvas for "The Picture of Dorian Gray." This house is obviously filled with ghosts because they seem to be woven into the curtains that continuously waft back and forth like something from a scene in "The Cat and the Canary". Whilst the angelic heads expressions vary between renditions of the four winds and little gold Sambos, the bedroom ghost appears more like a cross between Casper and a dwarf-sized Golem a la Paul Wegener. Most of the sculptures and reliefs that line the house's stairways, alcoves, and walls appear to have been drawn out of a Ray Harryhausen dream where ducking doesn't help. Not to worry: all will finally resolve itself in the climactic-swirling-ghost-carnival where Dante meets the Raider of the Lost Fireplace and Nel gets her chance to give Hugh his cum-uppins. She turns out, unexpectedly, to be a representative for the Save the Children Fund. None of this may seem to make much sense or to have very much of anything to do with anything, and therefore it all fits perfectly into the story structure. It would appear that the scriptwriter might have done a far better job by being somewhat less involved with his Self.

As we are introduced to hop-scotch stones in flooded hallways and carrousels in spacious quarters, we are also introduced to the world of an eccentric murderer with a thirst for children. What on earth, or in the world of the occult, this has to do with the original novel, I have no intention of wasting my valuable time contemplating. Whereas some filmed versions attempt to improve (whether it be well- or ill-advised) upon the original work, this movie has succeeded in both becoming probably the worst remake in cinema history as well as disgracing the memory of the original novel. This is one of those rare moments where we can find solace in the thought that a magnificent author is dead. On the other hand, she is probably turning in her grave.

Astounding moments abound throughout the course of the movie, such as the occasion when the group of three decides that Eleanor must, come what may, due to their concern about her deteriorating mind, anxiety-ridden state of being and obviously impending nervous breakdown, not be left alone for one minute that night. They then proceed to adjourn to the drawing room in order to discuss matters further and leave Eleanor alone in her room. Whoops! All hell breaks loose and stays on the rampage throughout the rest of the film. The most embarrassing moment, however, is reserved for Lili Taylor as Little Nell when she shouts the unforgettable phrase, "It was always about family". Excuse me while I puke blood, but will someone please let me know how the focus on family happened to get through these haunted doors? (Must be the work of the special FX department.)

Some might mistakenly think that there was still some hope when they notice that Colin Wilson has been listed as one of the producers on the project. Mistake. It's not the same Colin Wilson. The other Colin Wilson might have made some useful suggestions.

Vile? If you listen closely behind the bonk and bang of all the oversized and detracting ghosties and ghoulies in this version, perhaps you can hear the quivering voice of someone like Julie Harris, or perhaps even Eleanor Vance herself, shivering and thinking, the words coming freely into her mind, "this movie is vile, it is diseased, get away from here at once".

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House and whatever walked there, walked alone.

- Shirley Jackson, from The Haunting of Hill House
© 1959 by Shirley Jackson

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