Skip to main content

It's sort of Charles Foster Kane meets The Munsters or something.

The Haunting
(1999)

(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 audiencescommented 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

So the moral of the story is, better Red Riding Hood than dead Riding Hood. You read me?

The Fortune Cookie (1966)
(SPOILERS) Despite its pedigree – director and writer Billy Wilder reteaming with Jack Lemmon, the first teaming of Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a clutch of Oscar nominations – The Fortune Cookie isn’t up there with the best of Wilder’s Lemmon collaborations. Which were, at this point, in the past.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …