Sooner or later, somebody had to make a super-spectacular CGI horror movie. I suppose it might as well be Jan DeBont, the guy who helped pioneer the F/X-over-substance, computer-generated blockbuster with his second movie, "Twister."
But lest he be mistaken for a director with any sense of moderation, DeBont lets his Intel-inside ghosts and goblins run rampant and unchecked in "The Haunting" -- a neo-classic horror remake with special effects so distractingly, excessively cool that you'll completely forget to be scared.
The plot of "The Haunting" -- that an unethical psychology prof (Liam Neeson) doing a study in fear bunks a trio of volunteer insomniacs at a haunted house under the guises of a sleep study -- is ridiculous and practically irrelevant against the backdrop of the manically over-decorated Xanadu in which hundreds of iron-cast, zombie-eyed cherubs, lions and deformed human sculptures morph to life and terrorize the cast.
Instead of playing on his audience's psyche, DeBont is far too focused on making spectral shapes swim though window dressings and cathedral-like bedrooms sprout eyes, hands and tendrils. He does a great job of that. The ghostly cherubs literally gave me chills. But while he was busy looking over the shoulders of production designers and graphic artists, his movie was slipping into the ethers, and his talented cast of insomniacs were stuck into one-note performances, introducing themselves as they arrive in the first act like a "Real World" season premiere in a haunted house.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is Theo, a rich, sexy, bisexual, extrovert, fashion plate who can't sleep because she'd rather party.
Formerly reliable indie dame Lili Taylor ("Pekcer," "I Shot Andy Warhol") turns out to be the central character, Nell -- a mousy, sentimental, care-giver type on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It seems the house "wants" her, for reasons that will be readily apparent to anyone who notices how closely her heirloom jewelry resembles that worn by the women in dark portraits on the house's walls.
Based more loosely than it ought to be on Shirley Jackson's 1959 chiller "The Haunting of Hill House" (which was made into a scarier and more subconscious movie called "The Haunting" once before), this "Haunting" borrows several elements from old-school horror pictures. For instance, presiding ominously over the grand staircase (which seems itching to eat someone alive) hangs a portrait of the wild-eyed, mutton-chopped, feral-looking, 19th Century industrialist who built the sprawling mansion for the family he never had.
It also recycles such shopworn gimmicks as slowly creeping doorknobs on humongous doors that close and bolt by themselves and a hollow-eyed, "American Gothic" housekeeper ("I leave after the dark comes. If you need help, no one will come...in the night...in the dark...") -- although she's kind of funny.
But its lack of originality is a small crime in comparison to its unrealized potential. Such great sets, such great actors, such fantastic special effects, and this unengaging amusement park ride was the best DeBont could do.
What's worse, it nose-dives in the last reel with Taylor's wildly inconsistent character taking charge and challenging the ghosts with some of the worst climactic dialogue outside of a Roger Corman flick.
"The Haunting" may set the visual effects standard for any well-financed horror movies to come, but in the wake of the made-for-$100,000 "Blair Witch Project" -- the most frightening film in at least 20 years -- it leaves a lot to be desired in the substance and scares departments.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 23rd July 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $91.2M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG, Roth-Arnold Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 17%
Fresh: 15 Rotten: 75
IMDB: 4.8 / 10
Director: Jan De Bont
Starring: Liam Neeson as Dr. David Marrow, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo, Owen Wilson as Luke Sanderson, Lili Taylor as Eleanor 'Nell' Vance, Bruce Dern as Mr. Dudley, Marian Seldes as Mrs. Dudley, Alix Koromzay as Mary Lambetta, Todd Field as Todd Hackett, Virginia Madsen as Jane, Michael Cavanaugh as Dr. Malcolm Keogh, Tom Irwin as Lou, Charles Gunning as Hugh Crain, Saul Priever as Ritchie, M.C. Gainey as Large Man, Hadley Eure as Carolyn Crain, Kadina de Elejalde as Rene Crain (as Kadina Halliday), Alessandra Benjamin as Psych Patient #1, Karen S. Gregan as Psych Patient #2, Brandon Jarrett as Psych Patient #3, Mary McNeal as Psych Patient #4, William Minkin as Psych Patient #5
Also starring: Catherine Zeta Jones