[Screen It]


(1999) (Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones) (PG-13)

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Horror: A small group of people, led by a researcher who's deceived the rest, attempts to spend several nights in an alleged haunted house.
Dr. David Marrow (LIAM NEESON) is a researcher interested in studying what role fear plays in today's society. As such, he's set up a fake research project concerning sleep disorders that he'll hold at the massive and foreboding Hill House.

Built more than a century ago by textile baron Hugh Crain (CHARLES GUNNING) for his wife and dead children, the gothic-like mansion hasn't been visited by anyone since Crain's death other than the manor's caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (BRUCE DERN & MARIAN SELDES), who make sure they're long gone everyday before darkness overcomes the estate.

As such, Marrow hopes that the house's isolation and some creepy stories about it will evoke some fearful responses from his three test subjects. They include Nell (LILI TAYLOR), a woman who's spent the last decade carrying for her homebound mother, Theo (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES), an outgoing and worldly bisexual artist, and Luke (OWEN WILSON) a natural born cynic and chronic insomniac.

It's not long before Nell has some frightful, supernatural encounters. Although they soon involve Theo as well, neither Marrow nor Luke believe them and find various plausible explanations for what's occurring. Nonetheless, with the continuance of more supernatural visitations, the group soon believes the manor to be haunted.

As they try to figure out how to leave the locked and gated estate, Nell's encounters with ghostly spirits of children soon lead to the discovery of an awful truth about Hill House and its former owner.

If they're into horror films or are fans of someone in the cast, it's a strong possibility.
For intense horror sequences.
  • LIAM NEESON plays a researcher who deceives his test subjects into believing they're spending several nights in the house for a sleep disorder study when he's really set out to observe their reactions to fear.
  • CATHERINE ZETA-JONES plays a worldly bisexual artist (noted only by a few comments she makes) who must deal with the haunting.
  • OWEN WILSON plays the cynical member of the bunch who must similarly cope with the encounters.
  • LILI TAYLOR plays a woman who's been sheltered from the real world (formerly taking care of her ill mother) and is singled out by the home's spirits to help them (and thus has most of the spooky encounters).


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    While all horror films pretty much have the same goal, in essence they go about that in one of two ways. One group goes for the visceral scares where the sight of "monsters" and/or other supernatural elements are used to frighten the audience. While that's radically changed over the decades from the days of Frankenstein (that now seems incredibly tame) to Freddy Krueger and any assortment of other more recent bogeymen, the problem with such an approach is that such sights and recurring "jump scenes" lose their impact as the audience becomes more accustomed and/or numb to their effect.

    It's the other approach, however, that creates the more memorable and longer lasting scares. That's because such stories, their characters and the overall plot manage to get under the viewer's skin and creep them out, often days, weeks or even years later. One only has to think of certain scenes from films such as "The Exorcist," "The Omen," "The Shining" and now this summer's "The Blair Witch Project" to get the goose bumps rising.

    Another film that did the same more than three decades ago was 1963's "The Haunting," directed by Robert Wise of "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" fame. While those pictures don't exactly fit the mold of one who normally makes horror films, Wise used Shirley Jackson's classic horror novel, "The Haunting of Hill House" as the basis for his film and delivered a truly creepy affair. While it's been a long time since I last saw the picture (that starred Julie Harris & Claire Bloom), I do recall key scenes being quite unnerving.

    Of course, much like the best films taking this approach, they utilize the most potent cinematic tool available and that's the viewer's imagination. What the audience can conjure up in their heads is usually far scarier than what any makeup or special effects artists can produce, and the original "The Haunting" certainly took advantage of that fact.

    As such, I had my concerns about the remake of this film, especially since the never very subtle Jan De Bont would helm it. While I've enjoyed most of his pictures -- including "Twister" and the first of the two "Speed" films -- their over-the-top extravaganza style didn't seem to bode well for a retelling of this story. With a budget reportedly nearing $90 million, one wouldn't have to guess very hard that such bucks were probably spent on special effects and not the screenwriter's salary.

    Unfortunately, that's the case in this film that looks great, but suffers from poor writing, underdeveloped characters and an unsuccessful reliance on special effects and an elaborate production design to elicit the awaited spooky thrills and chills. From the forced exposition at the beginning to the occasionally stilted and/or ludicrous dialogue, the film has a few creepy moments, but they're few and far in between and all but dry up as the story becomes ever more preposterous as it enters its final act.

    Featuring what's essentially a standard haunted house story, freshman screenwriter David Self's script doesn't take full advantage of the genre's trappings. While some elements of Nell's character possibly going crazy are present and some other early explanations for the supposed supernatural events are introduced, they're clearly not taken far enough to make the film as much nebulous fun as it should have been.

    Granted, those who attend this sort of movie obviously know that the house will ultimately be haunted and will want to see such material. Nevertheless, a little "teasing" of such activity is good for tempting one's horror taste buds and always makes for a better horror flick.

    The film's biggest problem, however, is that it just isn't that scary despite the traditional setup, the special effects and making the haunted house a character in its own right. It's there that the filmmakers make their gravest error. Trying so hard to make the house look spooky, it's over- Gothicized approach -- courtesy of Oscar winning production designer Eugenio Zanetti ("Restoration," "What Dreams May Come") -- may look impressive, but is far too numbing in its overkill approach.

    While the press kit states that the filmmakers wished to have the house elicit a similar feel to what the Overlook Hotel did in "The Shining," the fact that it's so obviously and purposefully constructed to look spooky ultimately defeats its purpose.

    In Stanley Kubrick's underrated adaption of Stephen King's novel, the hotel that ultimately overcame Jack Nicholson's character never looked that spooky, or at least not until the very end. It was the creepy events that unfolded inside its massive structure and the completely believable isolation of its location that made it seem so foreboding. Here, De Bont might as well have put placards on the doors and walls stating "Scary Set Piece Number One" or simply "Boo!"

    Other than a few mildly creepy moments, the film just isn't that scary in its first half, and gets too abysmal and special effects-laden during the latter parts to be frightening. While you can admire the visuals -- courtesy of Oscar winners Phil Tippett ("Jurassic Park," "Return of the Jedi") and Craig Hayes -- and the constantly whirling sounds -- from seven-time Oscar winner for sound design, Gary Rydstrom ("Saving Private Ryan," "Titanic") -- they come off as nothing more than grandiose effects (with some of them even being recycled such as the ghostly and echoey children's voices that are straight from "Poltergeist").

    To make matters worse, the mildly creepy score from composer Jerry Goldsmith (who also did the music for "The Omen" and "Poltergeist" and plenty of other Oscar nominated films) may be somewhat effective, but clearly isn't as chilling or memorable as that found in other horror films.

    The performances don't help matters much -- as the characters are pretty much relegated to wearing just a wide-eyed expression -- and the script has left them high and dry without anything nearing character development. The only partial exception to that is the role inhabited by Lili Taylor ("The Impostors," "Ransom"). Although she's given some depth early on and the most screen time, that all but dries up as the special effects take over.

    Meanwhile, the other three characters, played by Liam Neeson ("Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace," "Schindler's List"), Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Entrapment," "The Mask of Zorro") and Owen Wilson ("Armageddon," "Anaconda") are so shallowly written that the performers could have been replaced by anyone, and with probably no effect -- for good or bad -- on the film's outcome.

    Simply put, the script is the weak link here. Beyond the lack of character depth, various events are curiously introduced and then abandoned (Theo's bisexuality), characters promise to return but never do (Marrow's assistants) and the plot all but disappears under the final act's barrage of special effects.

    Perhaps such visual theatrics may have scared audiences decades ago when such spectacles were unheard of, but today's audience simply sees them for what they are. Had the film swept us away with its story or characters, such effects would have been fun icing on the cake. As they stand, however, they simply prove that too much money and not enough imagination can spoil a film. Our advice -- go see "The Blair Witch Project" or rent this title's original incarnation. We give "The Haunting" a 3 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the content found in this PG-13 rated horror film. Considering its genre, one shouldn't be too surprised that the film is filled with moments that may be unsettling and/or downright frightening to many viewers, especially younger kids.

    Even so, while the many ghostly and supernatural visions, noises and encounters may be ultra scary to younger kids, older ones and adults probably won't react to the same extent, and some will find the proceedings more stupid/silly than scary.

    Beyond all of that material and the accompanying music, some violence occurs with two people being killed, one by decapitation although the act and resulting severed head are only momentarily seen. A few other nonlethal acts of violence occur, some of which are a bit bloody.

    Profanity is mild due to several uses of the "s" word, along with other profanities and colorful phrases. While no sexual activity or nudity is present, a character is presented as being bisexual, and a few related comments are made. A brief bit of drinking occurs as does a reference to drugs.

    Beyond all of that, the remaining categories are mostly void of any major objectionable content. Nonetheless, and due to the supernatural and possibly frightening material, you may want to take a closer look at the listed content should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness for yourself or anyone else in your home.

  • Marrow, his two assistants and Theo, Luke and Nell have wine with dinner and a few of them have more wine/other drinks later that night.
  • While talking about insomnia, Theo mentions that's why God created barbiturates and Luke then adds that Theo seems like a classic Seconal woman.
  • After a brief scare, Marrow's assistant states that he needs a drink.
  • We see what looks like a bottle of wine next to Nell's bed.
  • One of Marrow's assistants is hit in the face with a broken keyboard string, resulting in a moderately bloody scratch down her forehead and cheek (and has blood on her hands from that cut as well).
  • Nell follows what appears to be bloody children's footprints on the floor.
  • We see all sorts of human skeletal remains, especially in one scene where they're littered across the floor.
  • A large statue suddenly grabs Morrow and pulls him into the tub of water surrounding it (and then spits out blood from its mouth that mixes with the water and partially covers Marrow).
  • We see a large shard of glass pulled from Marrow's hand that is quite bloody.
  • We see a character get decapitated with the head falling to the floor (both are only momentarily seen).
  • Nell's sister and her husband have both toward Nell in following their mother's will word for word, thus ensuring that Nell won't have a place to live after caring for their mother for more than a decade.
  • Marrow has both for deceiving the others about the sleeping disorder tests and the reason they're staying at Hill House.
  • When alive it appears that Crain worked children to the death in his textile sweatshop, and as a spirit doesn't allow their spirits to leave the house.
  • The following may or may not be suspenseful and/or frightening to viewers -- all dependent on their age, maturity level and tolerance for such material (with most of it probably being very scary for little kids, mildly scary for those who are easily frightened, and possibly not at all scary for everyone else).
  • Both the gothic-like interior and exterior appearance of the manor may be unsettling or even scary to some viewers.
  • Nell enters the massive house for the first time and cautiously wanders about.
  • A large mural/sculpture that covers two doors (and features a depiction of purgatory, etc... with demons and skeletal figures) may be unsettling or scary to viewers.
  • The entire notion/talk/discovery of children having died and their souls being trapped in the house and then contacting Nell may be creepy or scary to some viewers.
  • We hear many instances of ghostly children talking in an echoey, reverberated and occasionally backwards playing fashion (similar to that heard in the original "Poltergeist").
  • The oversized portrait of a very stern and ominous looking Crain may be scary to some viewers.
  • Nell hears something thumping in her bedroom and the sound then races around the walls. She then goes into Theo's adjoining bedroom and both hear something at their doors trying to get in (and we see that it's banging against the doors) as they realize that the temperature has dropped so much that they can now see their breath.
  • At night, Nell's door to the outdoors slowly opens and as a breeze blows through her room (with her in bed), we see the impression of a floating, ghostly child against the billowing curtains, then slithering under her covers and then appearing in her pillowcase.
  • Nell sees some large and unidentifiable object come out at her from a large fireplace.
  • The group finds a creepy message written in red, dripping letters across Crain's portrait that reads, "Welcome home, Eleanor."
  • Nell's door opens at night and she awakens to find bloody children's footprints on the floor that she then follows through the house (along with ghostly echoing children's voices) and then into a secret passageway and staircase.
  • We briefly see a ghostly figure in a window.
  • While brushing her hair, Nell suddenly sees and feels a ghost moving it.
  • Nell briefly sees the image of a woman hung from the top of the home's arboretum.
  • Nell starts digging around through the large in-floor ash holders in a huge fireplace and finds a skeleton that suddenly pops up at her.
  • As Nell tries to open a locked door, a supernatural and quite large hand grabs out at her.
  • We see the breath of something hitting Nell's window as the candle in her room suddenly goes out and the room goes icy cold (we can see her breath). We then see an odd, but quite large and shadowy apparition glide across her ceiling/wall. Two small windows then turn into monstrous eyes and menacingly stare down at her (as the cherub sculptures in her room come to life and look frightened). Nell then sees a ghostly figure in the window and throws something at it, breaking the window. Its shards, however, suddenly reverse direction and fly back toward her.
  • She then runs down many hallways as some unseen, but apparently large "thing" chases after, but above her as dust/debris falls from the ceiling during the chase.
  • Nell sees various odd reflections of herself that scare her.
  • Marrow climbs up a suspended and unsteady spiral staircase in the home's arboretum that then falls apart as he goes up it, often leaving him precariously hanging from it.
  • A large statue suddenly grabs Morrow and pulls him into the tub of water surrounding it (and then spits out blood from its mouth that mixes with the water and partially covers Marrow).
  • As the cherub figures in her room come to life once again, Nell finds the architectural structure and ceiling above her coming to life (with ghostly like apparitions) and then impaling her bed and trapping her there. This includes a menacing/scary face and arm-like objects that come out at her (and later the others).
  • As gasoline leaks from a damaged car, Marrow races to free Luke from the vehicle.
  • The ending sequence, where the characters have more encounters with the evil spirit (and statues that have come alive) and try to get out of the house, may be suspenseful and/or frightening to some viewers (and includes a scene where we see a character get decapitated with the head falling to the floor -- but both are only momentarily seen).
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Basket case," "Screwed" (nonsexual), "Jeez," "Shut up," "Bastard" and "Go to hell."
  • Mrs. Dudley suddenly opens a door and scares Nell.
  • A burning log in the fireplace suddenly and loudly pops.
  • Luke suddenly walks into Marrow in the hallway late at night.
  • A skeleton suddenly pops up and scares Nell.
  • The film is filled with an extreme amount of scary and suspenseful music.
  • None.
  • At least 2 "s" words, 3 hells, 2 craps, 1 S.O.B., 1 damn and 8 uses each of "God" and ‘Oh my God," 6 of "Jesus," 4 of "Oh God," 2 each of "Swear to God" and "Oh Jesus" and 1 use each of "Christ" and "My God" as exclamations.
  • Theo shows some cleavage in various (and often skintight) clothes that she wears (and in one scene the camera briefly shows a closeup of that cleavage).
  • Theo casually mentions having both a boyfriend and a girlfriend and laments that the threesome doesn't get along and thus can't live together. She then asks Nell if she has a husband, boyfriend or girlfriend (she has none).
  • As Marrow mentions the basic needs of being human (food, shelter, etc...) Theo adds "sex" to the list.
  • None.
  • Nell and her sister (and her husband) have an argument about their mother's will (the mother recently died).
  • Whether haunted houses really exist.
  • Marrow's deceitful treatment of his test subjects.
  • One of Marrow's assistants is hit in the face with a broken keyboard string, resulting in a mildly bloody scratch down her forehead and cheek.
  • There's talk that Crain's wife committed suicide (and Nell later sees a vision of her hanging from the top of the home's arboretum.
  • Theo slaps Marrow.
  • Nell sees a ghostly figure in the window and throws something at it, breaking the window. Its shards, however, suddenly reverse direction and fly back toward her.
  • A large statue suddenly grabs Morrow and pulls him into the tub of water surrounding it (and then spits out blood from its mouth that mixes with the water and partially covers Marrow).
  • As Nell's room comes to life, objects in it (as well as parts of the floor, etc...) are destroyed.
  • Luke repeatedly strikes a lock with a shovel and then tries driving a car through the locked gate (damaging both). Marrow then breaks the car's back window to free Luke.
  • Marrow and Luke smash chairs against the home's windows as they try to escape and Marrow cuts his hand.
  • Luke purposefully slashes Crain's portrait.
  • A character is decapitated by a large swinging object (only briefly seen).
  • A large portrait falls and scratches Theo, while Nell repeatedly strikes a griffin statue that has come to life.
  • As we see the spirit of another person float up from their body, we assume that they died from their encounter with the evil spirit.

  • Reviewed July 23, 1999 / Posted July 23, 1999

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