Extravagant technical prowess has been channeled to negligible effect in “The Haunting,” a wannabe horror classic that turns deadly dull once the sense of anxious expectation wears off. The fabulous sets and elaborate and occasionally graceful special effects provide the $80 million production with its only distinction, and no doubt the prospect of spine-tingling visuals will be enough to lure a sizable mainstream aud looking for big thrills. But the pic’s incredibly hokey premise and surpassing inability to elicit shocks and scares will prevent it from reaching the full potential a good film of this nature could achieve.
It’s abundantly clear that no expense has been spared in the attempt to rev up the low-key spookiness of Robert Wise’s identically titled 1963 MGM film version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” to state-of-the-art levels of terror. However, Jan De Bont’s updating merely stands as yet another illustration of the fact that all the money in Hollywood can’t necessarily buy imagination, resourcefulness, wit or, apparently, a decent script.
This is a haunted house tale as high-tech as anyone could want, but still as creaky as “The Old Dark House.” Main gambit — and selling point — is that the sprawling mansion is actually “alive” with menace, a threat that manifests itself in a torrent of heart-stopping sounds, sudden apparitions, shape-changing carvings and statues, mutating walls and ceilings, and so on. The numerous visual, special and sound effects wizards have all earned their paychecks, as their work is certainly eye-catching and distinct from the norm.
But absolutely none of it is remotely scary; the only gasp or, to be generous, quasi-scream heard at the premiere screening was generated by one of the oldest tricks in the book — a hidden skeleton suddenly lurching up straight into the camera. At least if the picture had been in 3-D, such a cheap gag would have been understandable.
But, no, this is supposed to be a class act, as one can tell from the cast, visual opulence and literary pedigree. All the same, the ruse used to assemble, then keep, the characters under the house’s suspicious roof would have seemed lame even in some of the lesser efforts of Jack Arnold and Sam Arkoff, the eminent respective fathers of two of this pic’s producers, Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth.
Cover story is that researcher Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) is recruiting several insomniacs for a study of sleep disorders. In reality, he wants to test theories he has about fear — that it stems from automatic responses that generally have no justifiable basis — and what better place to do so than in a creepy place like this one? He rounds up three volunteers: Nell (Lili Taylor), a withdrawn, impressionable woman who has spent most of her life caring for her late mother; Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a raffish artist and woman of the world who’s the diametric opposite of Nell; and Luke (Owen Wilson), a man of no particular distinction save his occasional attempt at wry humor.
Marrow explains that their temporary abode — a spectacular mix of baroque, Gothic, Victorian and other styles for the interiors concocted by production designer Eugenio Zanetti — was built by a 19th-century New England tycoon who envisioned it as a home for many children, although he wound up having none. Strangely, the mansion is decorated with countless statues, busts and paintings of cherubs and tykes who — as the empathetic Nell comes to understand — are the spirits of the many children who suffered and died in the industrialist’s employment and are caught in a sort of purgatory, awaiting a release she alone can provide.
Theme is resonant enough and provides at least one character with some motivation for sticking around and navigating the considerable inconveniences of the house. This is more than can be said for the others, however, who have little reason to be there in the first place and less to stay.
Worse than that, as written by first-time screenwriter David Self, they’re bores whose few noticeable personality traits are quite irrelevant to anything that goes on. Much is made during the lengthy expository scenes about how important sex is to Theo and how she’s bisexual, but that’s the last we ever hear about it. Much more weirdly, Marrow’s assistant (Alix Koromzay) is seriously injured the first night in the house and heads for treatment in town, accompanied by a young man (Todd Field), saying they’ll be back. But they never turn up again.
When Bruce Dern is the caretaker of an abandoned old mansion, you know you’re in trouble. In fact, Marian Seldes, in the brief role of his withered, no-nonsense wife who warns the visitors about the house, is the only performer here to hit the right tone of alert, deadpan seriousness, clearing out the genre’s cobwebs while sending up its hoariest conventions.
Neeson is too earnest to make even his character’s deceit interesting, Zeta-Jones is not nearly as fascinating to watch as she was in her two previous big Hollywood pics, and Wilson has his natural irreverence tapped down to a dangerously bland level. Only indie stalwart Taylor, in her major-studio feature starring debut, has something resembling a real role to play, and she does so as capably as possible under the far-fetched circumstances.
Pic essentially dooms itself from the outset with a setup that is too artificial for the subsequent drama to be compelling, and with characters whose lack of a strong purpose severely limits their interest. The only thing that keeps you going for a time is the sense that it’s going to get better, that something wild and scary is bound to happen eventually.
The special effects guys do come up with some wild stuff — a scene in which a child’s ghost glides into Nell’s room on a billowing curtain, then under her sheets and pillow proves particularly magical — but for a real sense of dread this summer, hip viewers will head for “The Blair Witch Project,” which was made for about 1/800 the budget.