Haunting [1963]

Suffering from the extreme bad luck of being released at the same time as the low-budget The Blair Witch Project, this adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House attempts to update Shirley Jackson's psychologically terrifying ghost story to the era of big-budget, computerized special effects. Does it work? Well, let's just say that showing isn't exactly the same as telling. A prime example of bloated studio filmmaking, The Haunting telegraphs all its frights so blatantly that it forsakes any of Jackson's subtle horrors for the remedial scares of a clunky carnival ride. The story remains basically the same, with four people called to an old mansion for experiments in the supernatural, but instead of getting inside the heads of its main characters (as the 1963 adaptation by Robert Wise did so well), Jan DeBont's film deserts character development for the huge, glorious set design provided by Eugenio Zanetti (Restoration). Thus, instead of a well-drawn story you get... a well-drawn house, one that four very talented and underutilized actors--Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Liam Neeson, and Owen Wilson--wander around in endlessly (as Zeta-Jones puts it, the house is "sort of Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters"). Taylor, as the hypersensitive Nell, is the unknowing lynchpin in the battle between good and bad ghosts and gets saddled with most of the expository dialogue of the mansion's gothic backstory. Zeta-Jones (showing some spark) and Neeson (showing none) are sadly reduced to providing reactionary shots of the film's disastrous climax, which mixes hapless new-age affirmations with computer-generated effects of ghosts and exploding windows, walls, doors, etc. For this haunted-house story, take a quick tour of the breathtaking rooms, but definitely don't stay the night. --Mark Englehart

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