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The Haunting (1999)

***
1999

‘…a good bad movie that contains the ruins of an interesting film…’

OK, so this isn’t the best of the adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; in fact, it’s the worst by some degree. While Robert Wise’s 1963 version is still regarded as the mother lode, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation was much more faithful to the book than Jan De Bont’s supercharged but famously awful take, one that reduces everything to a Haunted Mansion thrill-ride and forgets to include any scares. And yet, while this is a junky, commercialised version of the story, there are fringe benefits that save The Haunting from being a complete bust. It’s new on Netflix UK.

Nell (Lily Taylor) is an insomniac, unjustly kicked out of her apartment after her mother’s death. A voice on the phone suggests she enlists in a programme of research into insomnia run by Dr David Marrow (Liam Neeson), which somehow involves spending a few nights in a haunted mansion. Along for the ride are sexpot Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and dimwit Luke (Owen Wilson) but as the house seems to spring to supernatural life, does the aging caretaker (Bruce Dern) hold the secrets to Hill House’s powers?

Who knows? It’s not clear at all what’s happening here; there’s lots of trippy visuals, and Nell seems to be connected to the spirits of children locked up within the structure, but the finale, in while Luke is decapitated in comic style and then everyone just leaves like the party’s over, is wildly unsatisfying. Have the ghosts spared their guests, or are they just lazy or ineffective in their actions? Whatever Marrow’s game isn’t clear either, and we’re meant to believe that Nell was summoned by vengeful ghosts who just happened to be in the loop that Marrow’s research was happening and deliberately tied these two groups together to cover their own tracks. And yet the sets are visually stunning, and the lapses of logic actually work to enhance the dreamlike quality of the movie. Irritating as all the characters are, and the dialogue is often teetering on parody, production designer Eugenio Zanetti goes mad with a $80 million dollar budget, and the visuals are worth savouring; the great Phil Tippett also contributes some imaginative animated tricks as the house comes to life.

The Haunting is a bad movie, for sure, but it’s also a good bad/movie that contains the ruins of an interesting film. Zanetti himself, influenced by Sufism and the writings of Idries Shah, is a fascinating character, and when the characters finally shut up and the mechanics slip into gear, The Haunting’s living nightmare scenario has a unique selling point that makes it worth a look, with a few warnings about the script. Here’s some sample dialogue, as Nell chats to Mrs Dudley, the sinister housekeeper with a full-time remit for generating farcically foreboding dialogue…

Mrs. Dudley: I set dinner on the dining room sideboard at 6:00. Breakfast is ready at 9:00. I don’t stay after dinner. Not after it begins to get dark. We live in town, nine miles.. So there won’t be anyone around if you need help…

Eleanor: We couldn’t even hear you.

Mrs. Dudley: No one could. No one lives any nearer than town…

Eleanor: No one will come any nearer than that.

Mrs. Dudley: In the night…

Eleanor: In the dark.

Comments

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  1. The presence of Owen Wilson should have been warning enough. On the other hand I imagined that Neeson could counteract that. Not so sure it deserves the good bad movie category. I always feel that a good bad movie is one you will to with some sense of positivity and I can’t see myself ever wanting to watch this again.

  2. The 1963 version is a classic. Using what the viewer doesn’t see to bring some genuine chills. This version wasn’t scary or even fun in a cheesey way. Would have to disagree with the 3 rating as it’s a 2 star at best and that’s being generous

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