When it comes to putting horror on the screen, less is almost invariably more. In The Haunting, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, more is almost always less. It hurls so many special effects at us that after a very short while the audience feels under assault – it’s more war movie than horror movie. The point of all this tumult is presumably to give us a thrill ride, but a certain condescension is built into the approach: By doing all the work for us, the filmmakers don’t allow us to use our own imaginations. They must think pummeling trumps the power of suggestion. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Shrieking together is one of the communal pleasures of watching a horror movie with a big audience. At the press screening I attended, the communion was all about laughter – of the unintended variety. (The audience seemed resolved to have a good time, even if it wasn’t the kind the filmmakers were aiming for.) The silliness starts early, when Nell (Lili Taylor), a mousy shut-in who had been caring for her invalid mother, arrives at the forbidding 130-year-old Hill House, in a remote area of the Berkshires, to take part in what is misleadingly billed as an insomnia research study. She’s ushered onto the grounds by the caretaker, played by – who else? – Bruce Dern. The mansion is supposed to be frightful, but the production designer, Eugenio Zanetti, under the guidance of director Jan De Bont, has gone hog-wild for Moroccan, Indian, Gothic, Neo-Classic, Baroque, Romanesque, Disney World-esque, Xanadu-esque, Addams Family- esque. (The sets were constructed in the same space in Long Beach, California, that once housed Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, which must be some kind of poetic justice.) It’s robber-baron kitsch, and in a comedy it might have made giddy sense. But the effect here is to suffocate the horror by piling on the ornateness. When the huge Moroccan doors and circular mirrored rooms start to rumble and sway, you figure that, for what they cost, they had better do something.
The real research study being conducted in Hill House is not about insomnia but about “the dynamics of fear.” Besides Nell, the annoyingly intense Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) has convened Luke (Owen Wilson), a wisecracking cynic who early on suspects the study is a sham, and Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bisexual gadabout who seems to have a change of clothes for every scene – no, make that every shot – she’s in. Theo comes on to just about everyone and everything; even the statues and the moldings don’t appear to be off-limits. With all this concupiscence at her disposal, why would this insomniac ever worry about sleeping? Dr. Marrow doesn’t seem to notice Theo’s allurements, though. He’s too busy being dubious about all the clangings and clonkings Nell claims to be experiencing. Instead of trying to help the poor stricken woman by bundling her out of Hill House, he perseveres, which makes him something of a sadist, although the film just views him as “driven.” With Marrow, the scientific method is just a little out of control, that’s all. Kind of like filmmakers who don’t know when enough is enough.
Jan De Bont made his fame as the director of Speed and Twister, and he brings to the party a smash-and-grab style that’s almost at the opposite extreme from what Robert Wise brought to his 1963 version of Jackson’s novel. Wise’s Haunting was infinitely scarier, and the scares were almost all suggestive. Julie Harris as Nell was the neurasthenic spinster whose every twitch seemed to trigger a shift in the shadows; Claire Bloom’s Theo was the lesbian as sloe-eyed Village sophisticate. What happened to these people mattered to us, because they were, well, people – not, as in De Bont’s version, merely distractions from the décor. (De Bont’s talented cast is almost uniformly awful, right on a par with the script; having given the worst performance of his career, Liam Neeson must feel relieved he can’t sink any lower). Robert Wise had worked with the low-budget horror maestro Val Lewton in the forties on such genre classics as Curse of the Cat People, and he brought to The Haunting the same spare stylistics. Like just about all good scare pictures, it included the audience as full collaborator, recognizing that what the director puts on the screen can never be quite as scary as what we might imagine.
It’s a touching approach in retrospect. Imagine! Using a feather instead of a sledgehammer! Even back in 1963, Wise was already out of touch with the show-it-all shock tactics coming into vogue. (The film was not a commercial hit.) Today, much more so than three decades ago, a film like Wise’s Haunting might seem like an affront to moviegoers who expect constant instant gratification. The pleasures of suggestion, of delayed gratification, seem lost on audiences, older as well as younger, who have been pounded into submission by movies until they think the pounding is the movie. The current whirlybird style of high-powered muscularity has crossed over from the Hollywood action picture into the horror genre: You come out of a movie like The Haunting or The Mummy feeling like you just sat through Armageddon. With its cheesy-scary monumentality, The Mummy was a big hit. Despite the laughter at the screening, The Haunting may end up a hit, too. If sensation is all, who cares if the sensations make any sense, or if they stay with you for even a millisecond after you leave the theater?