A study in fear escalates into a heart-stopping nightmare for a professor and three subjects trapped in a mysterious mansion. (from IMDb)
It’s that time of year. As Autumn fans – at least on the east coast – soak in the cooler air and falling leaves, pumpkin-flavored (and scented) everything, and ghoulish decorations, many are returning to their annual tradition of watching frightful entertainment. However, if you’re like me, the horror genre isn’t really your cup of tea. For me, the scariest I like to go is A Quiet Place, with my usual taste for spooky movies being kept to more comedy-driven, like the original Ghostbusters or the 1999 remake of The Mummy. Still, many Christians find anything spiritually dark as something to avoid, and I fall closer to that school of thought than most.
It’s for that reason that I had decided, twenty one years ago, after first watching The Haunting, not to write a review for it. (Something I’d totally forgotten when signing up to review the new Blu-Ray release of it.) Hardly a great movie, the PG-13 horror film boasts a great cast, mind-blowing set pieces, and a memorable score by the late Jerry Goldsmith (who also did one of my favorite scores that same year for The Mummy). Director Jan de Bont, who made a name for himself by directing Speed and Twister, took on a different genre than he was used to by agreeing to make a new version of The Haunting. As explained in a new featurette on the movie’s 2020 Blu-Ray debut, the filmmakers were forbidden to use any dialog or scenes from the original 1963 The Haunting movie, which forced them to turn to the original book (The Haunting of Hill House, which that film was based on) for direction and inspiration.
1999’s The Haunting has plenty of its own problems, mostly stemmed from its overuse of computer effects, a lot of which are anything but believable. But in its first half or so, it offers great bump-in-the-night spookiness, carried by a wonderful cast that includes Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson. The central character, Eleanor (Nell), however, is played by Lili Taylor. Taylor believably plays more of an everyday girl kind of character who is down on her luck when she receives her invite to visit Hill House. I’m not really a fan of Taylor, and her character gets rather nutty as the story progresses (even though it’s somewhat justified), but Taylor does her best with what the role calls for. The house has its own wealth of mysteries behind it, some that seem to link to Eleanor’s own family. While this aspect of the story is kind of interesting, the film unravels into an onslaught of excess as the house comes to life, ghostly children try to communicate with Nell, and the film’s central villain is portrayed in ghastly CG effects.
The Haunting is one of those movies that I often enjoy watching, but has plenty of things about it that kind of irritate me. There are a few movies I tend to return to that fit this description, especially when it seems like there are enough negatives to it to keep me from coming back (It’s almost like I hope those things that irk me won’t this next viewing). I guess I could chalk it up to liking probably three-quarters of the movie–as more of a guilty pleasure–and by the time its grandiose finale plays out, I don’t feel nearly as creeped out as the story’s first half makes me feel (so it kind of “undoes” the effect it creates). Still, there is definitely enough of a spiritual darkness to the movie that makes me less likely to want to watch this one by myself, and so it’s usually one my wife and I watch together in October. The basic gist of the ghostly story (some spoilers ahead) involves a man named Hugh Crain who Nell discovers had abused and tortured children in this mansion and refused to let them leave (we never see any of this portrayed on screen; we just hear about it having happened in the past). As Nell learns of the horrors hidden in the walls of Hill House, Crain’s ghost tries to ensure its new visitors, like the children, never leave. It’s ultimately a good versus evil story, though, and Nell becomes the heroine to these victimized spectres. The theme of the film ends up being one of sacrifice and how courage can overcome the evils of fear (which isn’t an unfamiliar Biblical theme.) Still, Jan de Bont’s direction turns from subtle to less-than-so, making the final scenes of the movie too over-the-top for its own good, doing a disservice to the story and the movie itself. It makes it far less scary when everything starts to look more like a cut scene from a video game. It’s a shame, too, because the team-up of Neeson, Wilson, Zeta-Jones and Taylor make it otherwise a fun movie to watch.
The Blu-Ray transfer for this late-90’s movie is quite fantastic. The filmmakers built these sets inside Howard Hughes’ gigantic airplane hangar, so they’re enormous, detailed, gorgeous sets. It’s hard to believe these rooms don’t really exist inside a house somewhere. Knowing these rooms were all built especially for this movie (Oh, the detail!) adds to the wonder of it a bit. and with this new HD transfer, you can really appreciate what the set artists have made here. 1998’s Armageddon had made me a fan of Owen Wilson and The Haunting only further cemented this (followed by 2000’s Shanghai Noon). Similarly, it was hard not to fall for Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, and she proves just as alluring here. Finally, Qui-Gon Jin himself — AKA Liam Neeson — from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (which had released only two months before this movie), is a great addition as well. This combination adds a lot of rewatchability for me through the years… even if the final minutes are disappointing.
The content for the 1999 version of The Haunting is definitely of the PG-13 variety. If you don’t like slasher films (like me), but you like some eerie entertainment, The Haunting may be more up your alley. I’d say it’s closer to the old classic black-and-white horror films than most of today’s horror movies. Still, there are some briefly bloody moments in it. Early on in the film, a harpsichord wire snaps, giving a woman a bloody cut on her face (which gets her out of the house early), and later in the film, a person gets a shard of glass stuck in their hand, which has some bloody results. The worst moment, however, is a slightly more distant (but still very clear) shot of a character getting completely decapitated by a gigantic lion-headed chimney flue. There is also some language in the movie, most of it being blasphemy (and mostly in a horrified manner–less in a flippant blasphemous manner, but yeah, it’s still blasphemy), and Catherine’s character, Theo, makes a couple fleeting remarks that suggest she’s bisexual.
Horror fans probably hate The Haunting, but those who like lighter ghostly fare are likely to find this one to be more their speed (no pun intended). If you’re especially sensitive to spiritual content, I wouldn’t recommend The Haunting, but if you’re looking for something different this spooky Halloween season that you won’t take too seriously, it might do the trick.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 10/18/20)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features Review
The Haunting is available on Blu-Ray/Digital, DVD, and through the usual digital providers. Along with the feature film, the Blu-Ray disc includes the following extras (in addition to the “Official trailer” and cheesy but creepy “Teaser Trailer”):
Filmmaker Focus: Jan de Bont on The Haunting (9:14) – This is a brand new retrospective look at The Haunting from director Jan de Bont. Here, Jan reveals that they couldn’t use any words or scenes from the 1963 movie and therefore had to go back to the book. He talks about Eleanor’s story and her journey through the film. He also shares that the studio forced him to add more horror jump scenes and fantastical moments. Jan thought it was too much, but he admits he does like the movie. (1 “h*ll”)
Behind the Scenes Featurette (27:12) – This original featurette was included on the original DVD release of The Haunting. Hosted by Catherine Zeta-Jones, it was made at the time the movie released and gives a more behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. The cast and crew talk about their love for horror. We also learn that two of the producers’ fathers were famous for making classic horror movies, so they were thrilled to be able to take this one on. Catherine shifts the focus of the featurette then to real ghost stories — including the huge house from England that the exterior manor is filmed at. (This segment was unsettling to hear personal accounts of ghost sightings.)
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 10/18/20)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: There is a nude statue of a woman on the door of the mansion (There isn’t much detail to it); Some female sphinx statues in the mansion are clothed but you can see the shape of nipples on them; Theo takes off her jacket and the camera focuses on her cleavage in her lingerie style top (Which seems to make Nell a little uncomfortable). She then makes a comment about her boyfriend, and then her girlfriend. Theo asks about Eleanor if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend (She says no); When Dr. Marrow lists thing people need, Theo chimes in and adds “sex.”
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “S” word, 5 “J-sus,” 3 “Oh J-sus,” 1 “Chr-st,” 1 “S.O.B,” 2 “cr*p,” 9 “G-d,” 9 “Oh my G-d,” 3 “Oh G-d,” 1 “Swear to G-d,” 4 “h*ll,” 1 “b*stard,” 1 “d*mn”
Alcohol/Drugs: Theo pours wine for the group while they’re having dinner.
Blood/Gore: We see skeletons and demons carved into gigantic doors; A harpsicord wire snaps, hitting a woman in the face, causing a bloody gash. Others rush to her aid and put a cup over her eye to keep the blood from getting into it. We see blood all over her face and hands; We see a message painted on a wall in red. It’s unclear if it’s blood or paint. Right after this, Nell spots red footprints of children on the floor and later refers to them as “blood”; Nell sees more bloody children footprints on her bedroom floor; Nell sees a woman hanging in the greenhouse (with her eyes closed); The fountain grabs Dr. Marrow and pulls him in. Its mouth spews blood from it and when he gets out, he wipes some blood from his face; The lionhead piece of the gigantic chimney flue suddenly drops out of the darkness and hits a man, taking his head clean off. There’s no blood, and it’s seen a little bit from a distance, but it’s certainly disturbing. The lion then drops the severed head to the ground. The fireplace then spits out lots of bones into the air; Crain’s painting falls and spikes on the top of it slash Theo’s arm, drawing a little blood.
Violence: A harpsicord wire snaps, hitting a woman in the face, causing a bloody gash. Others rush to her aid and put a cup over her eye to keep the blood from getting into it. We see blood all over her face and hands; There is banging on the locked doors of the girls rooms and they shake; After the paint/blood message is removed from the painting, that night a skull glows through Hugh Crain’s face; Nell jumps up from her chair and bumps her head on a lamp; Nell sees a woman hanging in the greenhouse (with her eyes closed); A skeleton suddenly pops out of the fireplace as Nell is digging through the ashes with a poker; A gigantic hand comes out of a door and punches Eleanor away from the door; Theo slaps Dr. Marrow in the face; Nell throws something through a window, breaking the glass, but it blows back inside the room at her. Nell runs through the halls as banging happens on the ceilings above her, chasing her; David goes up the hanging staircase in the greehouse to get Nell to come down, but it breaks apart and collapses. Dr. Marrow’s cell falls and shatters on the ground. Nell helps him to safety; The fountain grabs Dr. Marrow and pulls him in. Its mouth spews blood from it and when he gets out, he wipes some blood from his face; The ceiling in Nell’s room starts twisting and seething. Parts of it come down as spikes into her bed to trap her. The floor breaks up. A face comes out of the ceiling at her and hands come out of its mouth; Luke tries to hit the outside gate with a shovel. He then runs a car into it. Part of the gate falls down and spikes stick into the roof as gas runs out of the bottom of the car. Dr. Marrow breaks the back window and they pull him out; Luke and Dr. Marrow try to break the windows inside the mansion to get out by smashing them with his chairs; A shard of glass goes into Dr. Marrow’s hand. Theo rushes to his aid and pulls it out slowly; Luke jumps up onto a table and uses a candlestick to slash the face of Crain’s painting; A carpet trips a character and drags them to the fireplace. They soar through the air and crash into the wood in the fireplace. A lionhead piece of the gigantic chimney flue suddenly drops out of the darkness and hits the man, taking his head clean off. There’s no blood, and it’s seen a little bit from a distance, but it’s certainly disturbing. The lion then drops the severed head to the ground. The fireplace then spits out lots of bones into the air; Crain’s painting falls and spikes on the top of it slash Theo’s arm; A griffin statues comes to life and Nell beats it with a piece of debris; A ghost slams a person into a gigantic wall. Ghostly figures grab the ghost and pull it in. The person slides down the door and falls to the floor. They die soon after and we see their spirit lift into the air.