(SPOILERS) I somehow expected time wasn’t going to improve The Haunting miraculously, but returning to it rather underlines the idea that Jan De Bont somehow just got lucky with his first foray into directing – and, to an extent second – while everything subsequently proved him rather tragically incompetent. To such an extent, he effectively retired from the business after his fifth film. The Haunting suggests not only that he didn’t have the faintest clue how to make a scary movie, but that he wasn’t even trying. Or about as much as the makers of Scary Movie.
That said, it isn’t just that De Bont seems to have zero affinity for establishing atmosphere or eliciting tension and fear. Pretty much every aspect of The Haunting is misconceived, from David Self’s screenplay, to the ridiculously expensive sets – ridiculously expensive sets that only ever look like ridiculously expensive sets – to the appalling CGI that’s fatally relied on at every turn as a means to “terrify” the audience. Obviously, De Bont was a go-to cinematographer before he became a director (for the likes of Paul Verhoeven and John McTiernan), so you’d at least expect his movies to look good. They don’t tend to though. There’s a kind of spartan, empty quality that comes from not really knowing how to realise the core material. Caleb Deschanel was pencilled in to lens the picture, but left a week into the shoot – probably wisely – to be replaced by Roland Emmerich’s cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. You’d be hard pressed to note any kind of stylistic acumen here, aside from the occasional deep focus shot.
Despite the title, DreamWorks wasn’t remaking the MGM film but rather re-adapting Shirley Jackson’s novel (The Haunting of Hill House), at the behest of studio co-founder Steven Spielberg. Obviously, the Berg had a good track record with spooky goings on, having at very least ghost – ahem – directed Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. He roped Stephen King in to write the adaptation, but they had differences of opinion. Instead, David Self did as was asked of him, which involved some frankly baffling decisions that come across as change for the sake of change. Reportedly, King and Spielberg disagreed on the latter’s wish to make the characters heroic. So… how does one assess Liam Neeson’s hilariously named Dr David Marrow being utterly clueless about the supernatural, enacting an experiment in which his subjects believe they’re part of an insomnia study but whereby he’s actually testing their fear response (while simultaneously not believing in the house’s spook-tastic properties).
It makes the movie a mess from the first, since the focus is blandly confused. Add to that Neeson at his most plank-tastic, and one of the leads just seems like a dick. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the movie’s version of lesbian Theo is also pretty nondescript, dressed to impress and announcing herself as bisexual (what was intrinsic to the psychological conflict first time round now just seems cynical). Lili Taylor’s brief flirtation with big-budget fare initially seems like it may pay off, with an effective if overcooked early scene where a cameoing Virginia Madsen establishes Nell’s isolation from the world, but Taylor’s soon submerged by the abysmal on-the-nose writing as she responds to CG cherubs and variously being scared silly (“I like this house”), an unnecessary connection to the house (she’s the daughter of its builder Hugh Crain’s second wife), and a hilariously half-assed response to Owen Wilson being decapitated (“Oh no” – oh yes, Lili). Wilson at least seems to permitted to improv a few decent lines (“There’s some good hallways that way”), but there’s no way he can singlehandedly wrestle the proceedings into watchable order.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Haunting is that it’s a Steven Spielberg production yet he elected not to retain his executive producer credit. IMDB’s trivia section would have you believe both that he was so disgusted by the finished film that he had his name taken off it and that he was rumoured to have directed some scenes and been heavily involved in post-production. It seems unlikely that both are true. There’s certainly little sign that anyone with an eye for scares has attempted to salvage the picture. And with regard to his name not being on it, well, he went uncredited on Small Soldiers too. You can certainly believe he’d not want to be associated with this dreck, though. Particularly since he appears to have been instrumental in approving its divergent – and hopeless – content compared to the book/ previous version. Get this: it appears that Hugh Crain tortured and killed a number of orphans, burning their bodies in the super-size fireplace (for Eleanor to find) so providing him with a spook family-in-residence.
It’s a particularly grisly backstory, and one wonders just what possessed Spielberg, so to speak, that he thought it was appropriate for a family horror flick? As it turns out, it has almost zero impact, because the picture fails to offer any level of unsettling elements. Still, though: “Steven felt we needed to deliver the goods for modern audiences” commented Self, explaining that he’s the kind of dad who’ll be inspired by the disturbing connotations of the impression his daughter’s face makes on a silk sheet (“We need a scene where there’s a spirit of the child in the sheets!”). Nice.
It appears the Berg hasn’t got the spook element out of his system, as he ditched a Turn of the Screw inspired project called Haunted three years ago that had Juan Carlos Fresnadillo attached (Mike Flanagan’s second season of The Haunting of Hill House, notably, is based on the Henry James novel), and has since enlisted Alexandre Aja to make an interactive haunted house movie. Which sounds exactly the kind of out-of-touch idea a once zeitgeist filmmaker would come up with to prove he’s relevant. The kind of guy who’d make Ready Player One. It’ll probably turn out to be every bit as good as De Bont’s The Haunting.
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