Well, here's the 2nd part of Moriarty's week long look at the future of Hollywood's love affair with the Supernatural Suspense genre that we are getting ready to run into. This time he focuses on DAVID SELF's script of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. As I did yesterday, I would like to make not of the fact that, even though I really love David's script, the word has reached me that there were... rewrites and I have not seen a more recent draft. And my general fear is that DeBont won't spend enough time building up the psychological horror, and instead go for the cheap scare. Now I don't feel that's in the script... but... well one never knows the direction a script will be taken if the director so desires. I'm keeping my fingers crossed due to the very very strong cast this film has... and the strong word of mouth generated from the cool sets. Here's Moriarty...
Hey, Head Geek...
One of the issues that must be addressed when tackling the problem of the hauntings here at the Moriarty Labs is whether the ghost is an internal or an external apparition. In other words, I need to figure out if I'm being haunted or if the building itself is being haunted. If it's something I did, then I'll have to pay the penance and get rid of the ghost that way, but if it's something about the structure itself, this could be more difficult. After all, as the tag line for Jan De Bont's new adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE says, "Some houses are born bad." If that's the case with the labs, I'm going to be pissed, and there's some contractors who owe me an explanation.
Before I discuss David Self's screenplay, I'd like to ask one question of DreamWorks. Why isn't Wes Craven directing this movie? As anyone who knows Wes personally is aware, he's a raving fan of the work of Shirley Jackson, and from what I understand, he's one of the people who rekindled interest in this property, almost setting it up at Miramax. It seems a shame, and it's not as if he's out of the game these days. After all, his SCREAM films are the reason for the new wave of horror films. If anyone in town has earned the right to make an A-list $100 million haunted house movie, it's Craven. Having commented on the movie that might have been, let's move on to the movie that may well be.
Steven Spielberg has a hard-on for haunted house movies. He's been trying to develop one ever since POLTERGEIST. He and Stephen King worked on an outline for years to no avail. One of the things that kept them from making the film was the fact that Robert Wise's classic THE HAUNTING looms large over the genre. It's hard to imagine doing it any better. It looks like Spielberg has finally given up with finding an original idea that works better, and he's gone back to the source material for a remake.
Hiring his new favorite screenwriter in town, David Self, was a pretty good idea. He seems to have been well aware of what kind of film he was setting out to write here. He's created a strong central character with his interpretation of Eleanor, or Nell as everyone calls her, and Lili Taylor is absolutely perfect for the role. It's going to be a kick to see her starring in a big-budget studio FX picture, since she's almost incapable of hitting a false note. One of the things that sells an FX film (or kills it) is how committed the actors are to what's happening onscreen. With Lili in the lead, expect them to sell it for all it's worth. He's etched a memorable group of supporting characters as well. Liam Neeson is perfect for Marrow, the professor who organizes the experiment that brings everyone to Hill House. Theo should provide Catherine Zeta Jones with another meaty role to dig into, while Luke is a perfect fit for Owen Wilson, one of the quirkiest character actors working right now. By using a strong character cast like this, DreamWorks has stacked the deck in the best possible way, making sure that there should be acting fireworks to match the thunder and fury that will be summoned by ILM.
One of the things that made the original THE HAUNTING such a classic was the way Wise suggested everything, using sound and the barest hint of FX to terrify. De Bont has a much more sophisticated toolbox to play with, and one of the fears that film fans have is that all subtlety is going to be thrown out the window for a nonstop FX reel. I have both good news and bad news for those people. The good news is that much more of the film depends on sound and atmosphere than you would think, but the bad news is that the ending really cuts loose in a way that Wise could have never imagined.
That's just bad news for purists, though. I actually liked the way this script built, and I appreciated the final all-hell-breaking-loose act of the film. There's a different narrative thread in this film than in the original, and it makes sense for this film to go where it does. Unlike the original, there's a different backstory for the characters and for Hill House itself. When everything comes together, it feels right for everything to come down.
One of the things that should make this well worth your $7.50 is the use of sound. This is going to be the second film to use the new Dolby 6.1 surround system, and it should be a real treat. The script makes special note of sound, to an extent I've never read in any other screenplay. At one point, we are even treated to the following:
ANGLE ON NELL AND THEO
staring out AT US in terror. BANG. BANG. The CONCUSSION hits us
with all the force of THX. Nell and Theo's eyes travel over the
walls, following whatever it is which now seems to be moving out here
in the theater.
The BANGING moves along the wall to the right, reaching its loudest as
it crosses the back of the theater, then seems to come down the left
The BANGING moves along the wall to the right, reaching its loudest as it crosses the back of the theater, then seems to come down the left side.
For quite a bit of the film, Self keeps the terror offscreen, and it increases our anticipation. He also builds some genuine mystery into the script. It's my understanding that both Walter Parkes and De Bont himself have taken passes at the script during production, but hopefully they haven't done too much too it. Some of the lesbian undertones they tried to paint in the relationship between Theo and Nell don't really work and could easily be jettisoned. If they're still in the film, they need to be tweaked so they really work instead of just feeling thrown into a scene for no reason. Most of the big scares are firmly in place, though, and Self has created a solid ride that will no doubt play well all summer long.
When I announced yesterday that I would be doing this film as the second part of the series, I received several e-mails from people working on the film, particularly in the FX department. It sounds like they're under the gun to finish this and get it into theaters for summer, but it also sounds like everyone's doing great work and handling the pressure well. Even De Bont is reported to be confident, in control, and not worried in the least. This should be a nice comeback after the fiasco of SPEED 2, and it should reestablish De Bont as someone who knows how to build an audience pleasing rollercoaster. As long as DreamWorks makes sure they finish the film properly and don't rush it unnecessarily, they look to score big.
Will this make us forget the original? No. Is it the definitive adaptation of Jackson's novel? No. But is it going to be worth the trip to the theater? It sure does look like it. There are other scripts that have more substance that I'll be covering in this series, but their serious looks at heavy theological issues may have more trouble engaging a mainstream audience, making THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE the crowd-pleaser of the bunch.
I'd like to say more, but one of my henchmen just walked in with his head doing complete 360s. This seems to be a bad thing, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to involve the church in this whole mess. Maybe I'll just consult Brian Helgeland and see what he turned up while researching THE SIN EATER, tomorrow's spotlight film. Until then...