Back in 1963 Robert Wise directed "The Haunting," a telling of Shirley Jackson’s story "The Haunting of Hill House." Wise (who also directed "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Odds Against Tomorrow", and honed his skills on "The Curse of the Cat People") made the movie in black and white and starred Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn in the leads. The story concerns four visitors to an exceedingly sinister and sciatic-disturbing mansion and what happens to them after they begin to disturb the spirit that resides in Hill House. It’s rated by all critics as one of the best ghost stories ever filmed.
Enter Jan De Bont, the director of "Speed," "Speed 2," and "Twister." Unhappy with the old b & w flick, Mr. De Bont decides that instead of signing on good actors, he’ll settle for passables and spend the money on, you guessed it, SPECIAL EFFECTS! With the exception of Lili Taylor in the role of Nell (originally played by Julie Harris), we are treated to some of the most uninspired acting since KoKo the Klown met Betty Boop.
From the moment Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes sidle up as creepy caretakers we know the thrills will be mostly downhill. I wonder if Mr. De Bont ever thought of making the housekeeper an up-to-date Mrs. Paul or a Ma Kettle so we would get a chance to see comparisons between delight and damnation. But no such luck.
Soon chilled air fills the rooms, ceilings swirl, plaster falls, glass breaks, beds threaten, and our ears are assaulted with the sound of Dolby thudding down the hall. The great set-piece of the original movie, the library spiral staircase, becomes a $12 million dollar set in a room that the script calls a greenhouse but most viewers over 50 will instantly recognize as a conservatory. And so it goes.
Whenever you see sets heavy into art nouveau and with lots of three-dimensional heads (in this case, children) plus giant stone or metal creatures modeled in the Gothic mode, you know that sometime they’re all going to move. And at a cost of well over $70 million, we are treated to some of the most boring computer graphics ever devised. The only scare is in the first ten minutes when a harpsichord spring snaps and cuts one of the so-called patients in the face. After that, it’s Dullsville.
There is absolutely no star chemistry visible (what happened during coffee breaks is anybody’s guess), and most of the interior sets looks like they were borrowed from a yet-to-open Vegas Hotel, possibly called Winning Gothic.
At flicks end, we’ve gained one or two thrills and lost dozens as Nell saves the ghosts of scores of children, Liam Neeson stands in the wreckage with egg on his face, and the beautiful Ms. Zeta-Jones (in the role created by Claire Bloom) looks pretty perky and all set for an infomercial on elegant soaps.
Save your admission and go for a long walk.