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THE HAUNTING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor
Director:  Jan de Bont
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  November 23, 1999

Film ***1/2

Though quite a few critics panned The Haunting, I still found myself eager to take a look at the picture.  After all, I love horror films, even the ones that don’t scare me.  Plus, director Jan de Bont had created two of the most exciting, if often implausible thrill movies in Speed and Twister.  Liam Neeson has long been one of my favorite actors.  And if I can help it, I know I’d like the last thing for my eyes to see on earth before I die is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ face. 

My expectations were not particularly high going in.  Coming out, I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed.  The Haunting represents a terrific throwback to the horror picture that relied heavily on atmosphere and ambience, back when directors really knew what to do with a haunted house.  I guess it may not have been what a lot of modern fans were looking for, but personally, I found it enthralling, hypnotic, creepy…and strangely beautiful.

I couldn’t help but remember when watching the film that de Bont spent many years in the movie business as a cinematographer before ever trying out the director’s chair for himself.  That experience clearly shows through here.  I mean, just look at that house.  It’s an absolute marvel of construction and art design, and de Bont brings out all the eerie beauty with his remarkable lighting and photography.  From room to room, each setting has its own feel and personality.  Color schemes are remarkably conceived throughout.  Each wall, drape, or item of furniture looks meticulously detailed.  The house seems alive with statues and engravings filling every locale, mostly of cherubic children.  In some areas, light pours in from outside through high and lofty windows, but seems to be trapped in mid air.  It reminded me of Van Gogh’s “The Red Room”.  There’s even a carousel-like room of mirrors where two characters dance wildly as thing spin around them.  The effect is remarkable, especially since you couldn’t see the camera in any of the mirrors.  That’s the kind of meticulous attention to detail and careful preservation of illusion that I so love about the best motion pictures.  Even the house’s exteriors are mind blowing…equally and effectively gorgeous and creepy.

But having established the vast, imaginative expanse of the house, de Bont and his crew carefully begin to bring in the special effects to start their scare fest.  I was particularly impressed with the way the atmospheric photography and sets blended with morphing and liquid CGI effects to create moods and frights that one nor the other would have accomplished singularly.

The story goes like this:  three insomniacs, Nell (Taylor), Theo (Jones), and Luke (Wilson) are brought to Hill House by Dr. Marrow (Neeson), a psychologist who claims to be doing research on sleep patterns.  In fact, his study is in fear, and he purposely brought his subjects to a creepy locale, where he figures a fright story or two will have their imaginations running wild.  Nell seems to be suffering the worst of the situation, and premise-wise, it’s rather effective…we, the audience, are not always sure that what she sees and hears are more than figments of her stimulated imagination, as Dr. Marrow claims.

As thing begin to deteriorate, it’s remarkable how much the house really seems to come into its own as a living entity.  From time to time, it even seems to have eyes, glaring at the less and less willing participants.  And suddenly, those little statues that seemed so lovely at first are just more sets of eyes…especially when they appear to be reacting to the strange goings on

Thrown in for good measure is the unfolding of a rather intriguing mystery.  Turns out, if Hill House is indeed haunted, there may be a reason why these people were brought there.  And there may just be an even darker side to the legends about the locale than had previously been imagined.

The film maintains an unsettling atmosphere throughout, and de Bont, like a master conductor, knows just when and where to raise and lower the tension.  You get the feeling pretty early on that his symphony of horror will end with an incredible crescendo of terror.

The main fault I find in an otherwise terrific film is with the acting from time to time.  This is a talented cast, but there were a few too many moments in the film that freaked me out, which barely seemed to register with the actual participants.  A time or two, I though their lack of enthusiasm took away from what might have otherwise been powerful, memorable moments.  And Ms. Taylor really needs to learn how to scream a little better.

Those points aside, there is still more than enough in the picture to make it a success.  This is a film that creates and maintains horror through visuals, atmosphere, and sound…in other words, a perfectly cinematic horror movie.

Video ****

Dreamworks continues to be a leader in this category.  The Haunting is all about the look, and that look is given great care with this terrific anamorphic transfer.  Every aspect of the visually stunning scenes reproduces beautifully, with rich, vibrant colors, sharp images, and remarkable clarity even in low lit scenes.  At certain points, rooms go from light to dark without losing any resolution.  I noticed no grain or compression throughout.

Audio ****

This 5.1 soundtrack is remarkable.  Rich, dynamic, and certainly ambient, though hardly ever subtle, with full range of front and back stages and smooth crossovers, this film demonstrates how important sound is to the horror genre, and the disc captures it with remarkable clarity, including some of the deepest, most distant sounding rumblings you’re likely to hear from your subwoofer. 

Features **1/2

The disc contains two trailers, cast and crew bios, and a featurette hosted by Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Though some web sites have reported it, there is no commentary track with this DVD, nor is it listed on the package.

Summary:

The Haunting is horror atmosphere at its very best, creating and maintaining fear through wonderful camera work, expert lighting, beautiful art design, and a magnificent, awe inspiring location in Hill House. This house is so incredibly detailed, so wondrously designed, so eerily gorgeous, that I actually wouldn’t mind living there myself.  Well, you know, except for all the evil stuff…