The Haunting

on July 23, 1999 by Christine James
   The most haunting element of this film is the ghost of what it could have been, glimpsed in ephemeral shadows and fleeting contorted reflections. But director Jan De Bont ("Speed 2," "Twister") pathologically forgoes subtlety for special effects bombast which, though visually impressive, is quickly desensitizing and raises nary a goosebump (especially since we've already seen the creepiest of the anthropomorphized statues in the trailers).
   The story, based on Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House" (previously adapted for the bigscreen by Robert Wise in 1963), centers on the horror that befalls three people lured to a sprawlingly opulent but distinctly foreboding mansion (as one character puts it, "`Citizen Kane' meets `The Addams Family'") by a psychologist (Liam Neeson) who claims to be studying sleep disorders. Instead, he intends to observe his guinea pigs-Nell (Lili Taylor), Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Luke (Owen Wilson)-in an experiment on the dynamics of group fear. After telling them snippets of the macabre history of Hill House under the guise of casual conversation, he intends to sit back and watch the seeds he's planted germinate into full-blown paranoia. But it soon becomes apparent that only the disbelievers are delusional.
   At the nucleus of the phenomena is the timid Nell (convincingly played by the always fascinating Taylor), who is strangely drawn to the house despite the malevolent presence that pervades it. Conditioned by a lifetime of putting others' needs before hers, she summons her courage and takes it upon herself to become the protector of the innumerable spirits of children trapped in the grotesquely gothic estate, held in purgatory by the demonic specter of the house's late owner.
   The children are not humanized enough to incite concern over their fate, as they are depicted solely in the form of eerie, cherubic carvings occasionally coming alive to mouth pleas-keeping them at an emotional distance from the audience, to say the least. And the horrors of Hill House are so specific to the place and situation, as well as so hurriedly and unconvincingly explained, that viewers likely won't think twice about going to bed that night without the comfort of a nightlight-which is about the worst condemnation one can give a fright flick. Starring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. Directed by Jan De Bont. Written by David Self. Produced by Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth and Colin Wilson. A DreamWorks release. Horror/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense horror sequences. Running time: 113 min
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