Well folks, tomorrow night I see this one for myself and I've been awaiting it with a certain amount of trepidation. I liked David Self's original script, but I heard about a lot of rewrites, Jan DeBont... But then rumors of Spielberg's attentive hand creeped in, and I began wondering if perhaps this could be one of them... Poltergeist deals... Well, Moriarty likes it. He knows evil when he sees it... Here the old bloke be...
Hey, Head Geek...
There's quite a bit of activity in the Moriarty Labs tonight. We're in the middle of upgrading our security system. There was nothing wrong with the system already in place, but I'm feeling a little paranoid tonight. I'm fairly sure there's been someone in here, spying about. I'm not pointing any fingers, Eugenio Zanetti, but I am deeply unnerved by how accurately the Labs have been reproduced under the guise of "sets" for the new DreamWorks version of THE HAUNTING.
Oh, sure, there's a few differences. Bruce Dern is definitely not my groundskeeper, and the giant portrait of me that dominates the Grand Hallway is much more flattering than the one of Hugh Crain. There's no getting around the fact that all the crazy architecture, the pointless rooms, the freaky statuary, the ornate madness -- well, we got that in spades, man.
I guess I should back up a moment here and explain that earlier today, I was just spending a few quiet moments alone in the Labs when the phone rang. An acquaintance of mine with whom I've had various illicit business dealings over the years was on the line. Last I heard, the man was in Vienna, but he sounded close. When he told me he was outside Harmony Gold, I was stunned. The Labs have a great vantage point from which I can look down at Hollywood (despite being located underground for the most part -- you figure it out), and I can practically throw something and hit Harmony Gold. I hurried to join my friend, who was busy bribing the doormen openly as I arrived. We moved inside, found our seats, and sat back as the lights went down on the first finished screening of this, the newest Jan De Bont film.
This is a movie that's had an incredible production schedule, but the rush doesn't show onscreen at all. In fact, I'd say this is the most control De Bont has shown yet as a director. I'm not crazy about the exposition at the beginning of the film, but it does pay off handsomely later with a visual surprise. It all seems a bit perfunctory. Still, we're talking about five, maybe ten minutes before Eleanor (Lili Taylor) finds herself driving up to the main gates of Hill House. From that moment on, what you're treated to is a well-sustained slow burn that pays off with a smart, successful FX show ending. This is a film that knows exactly what it is, and simply respects the audience enough to play by the rules very, very well. De Bont isn't making THE SHINING here. This isn't a film that is more metaphor than horror. This is a classically structured haunted house film that learned its tricks well from Robert Wise's seminal '60s adaptation of the same source material. When it cuts loose in the last 20 minutes with a conclusive, aggressive display of the full power of Hill House, it didn't feel to me like a cheat at all. Instead, I was ready to finally come face to face with whoever was at the heart of the titular haunting, and the work Phil Tippett Studios has done in bringing that confrontation to life is really rather remarkable.
Let's look at the cast for a moment.
Lili Taylor is the center of the film, and the weight of it is ultimately on her. If she doesn't succeed, the film can't succeed. She has some remarkably complicated changes to go through as a character, and she manages to maintain her tightrope walk straight up to the end. Taylor has always been blessed with an inner light, a quality that really pays off here. There's both innocence and insanity in what she has to play, and there's one shot of Lili that really broke my heart. I believed her Eleanor, so I believe it when she is haunted.
Liam Neeson is gold, and he knows it, too. The role he's playing isn't especially demanding, but an actor of lesser charisma would be lost. Neeson brings that movie-star aura of his to bear here, and there's still a hint of Qui-Gon Jinn about him. One good scene near the film's end finally peels back a bit of that cool Irish reserve, and it's fun to see him erupt.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is good as Theo, the bisexual artist who becomes Eleanor's best friend in the House, but she's not great. Part of that is the role. Theo doesn't have a lot to do.
In fact, neither does Owen Wilson's Luke (his real-life brother's name... boy, I bet that never got confusing on the set). Both of them are just in the movie to give Eleanor someone to bounce off of while she unravels the mystery of the House. Owen Wilson brings a hell of a lot of charm to the role, though, and like Neeson, he ends up looking good as a result. It's him the audience likes, and he's natural enough to convince us when the scares hit.
And hit they do, with concussive force. Go see this at the best auditorium you possibly can, and find one that is playing the film in Dolby EX. Like Robert Wise, De Bont depends in large part on the use of sound in this movie. Things move behind walls, just out of sight, and they bump, rattle, and growl thanks to the awesome work of Gary Rydstrom. The man who made audiences think they were deaf with last year's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN has done a wonderful job of building and playing with a total soundscape. Many of the sounds were recorded and played back to the cast while they were actually on-set, in character. There's some beautiful jumps in the film, and it helps that the cast is a little edgy themselves. De Bont plays it fairly straight for the first half of the movie, then gradually steps things up. When all hell breaks loose in the movie's last movement, Rydstrom really goes to work, as does Tippett Studios. Their work distorting sets and bending walls and ceilings is seamless, utterly convincing in most places. Most of what you've seen in the TV spots is from one concentrated stretch of film, and I'd advise you all to look away over the course of this week as the spots go into heavy saturation. Wait for the film and you'll enjoy the material so much more in context. Michael Kahn, Spielberg's longtime collaborator, does some great, subtle work editing this picture, and helps goose every scare just a bit, up a notch.
Enough cannot be said about the contribution of production designer Eugenio Zanetti, whose massive sets for Hill House feel like a real space, lived in. This is the house Hugh Crain would have built for his wife and all those poor doomed children. The way the entire design of the place keeps folding in on itself, how everything seems to lead back to Crain's massive portrait, like every hallway is connected by one spot, one picture -- it's right. It's seductive, it's got a beauty to it, but it's deranged in some small ways that add up to a general unease. I think this is the kind of work that the Academy will have to recognize at the end of the year. Hill House isn't just a setting for the film, it's a character, the second lead after Taylor, and if it didn't work, the film would be absolutely pointless. Zanetti seems to have gotten into the head of Hugh Crain, and he's done a wonderful job of setting up a world in which all the moments of this movie could take place. A veteran of such films as RESTORATION, Zanetti brings an almost obsessive eye for detail to the picture. I hope Jan De Bont thanked him every day.
Oh, yeah... I almost forgot Jan De Bont. Here's a guy who blew his Hollywood heat in a big way with SPEED 2. Poor bastard. That movie would have sunk anybody who tried to make it. De Bont's first SPEED is a calorie-free little trifle that succeeds largely based on the chemistry between his leads. TWISTER benefitted from a killer teaser trailer campaign, an irresistable premise, and those amazing ILM tornadoes. Beyond that, though, it was hollow, without any soul, and it looked like De Bont was going to be a guy who could do big and loud and not much else. After seeing this film, though, I'd say he's capable of more. There's some really nice quiet stuff in this film. I think there's a few expository scenes where the pacing is just terrible, where the actors don't click, but there's more control overall, and the net effect is very enjoyable.
De Bont really seems to enjoy suggesting things to the audience as the film unfolds, and the story itself has to do with suggestibility. I learned a lesson about how easy it is to convince your mind of something tangible but impossible when I was a kid. I was at camp one summer, and the guy I shared the tent with was a SF/fantasy freak like me. We would read H.P. Lovecraft at night, trading good stories back and forth. One particular night, the two of us were trying to fall asleep, and we had the back flap of the tent, the flap by our heads, hanging open so we could see the night around us.
At the time, there was an urban legend going around the camp, a Tennessee spot called Skymont, that a Scout had died in our campsite. The older Scouts used the story to torment the younger Scouts. It was our year to be tormented, so we were simply doing our best not to think about it. My friend Chris was on his back, staring straight up the trunk of the tree that was nearest him when I heard him whisper, "Fuck me..."
"What?" I asked in a normal voice. Chris lashed out and punched me, then pointed up the trunk of the tree. "The Scout," he hissed at me. I thought someone was sitting in the tree, watching us, but I couldn't figure out why, or how they hadn't seen Chris punch me. I checked for myself, and for a moment, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was riveted, trying to process what I was seeing.
Sitting at the juncture of two larger branches, nearly 30 feet off the ground, at a spot no human could have reached without injury or death, sat a Scout dressed in a uniform that was clearly older than any of us. He was motionless, staring off, away from our tent, but there was something about his very posture that was sad. As I watched, waiting for him to move, I could even see his back move slightly as he caught each breath, as he inhaled, as the wind ruffled the leaves...
I looked again, and I realized that the Scout I was looking at was a trick of the moonlight and the leaves, a bizarre accident that would have only worked from the perspective Chris and I shared. I told Chris what I saw, speaking out loud despite his desperate hissing, and he finally moved around, saw I was right. We were both even more impressed after we found out it wasn't a ghost. For the rest of the week, we could see the Scout every night when we looked at the right spot. Even knowing the trick, I fell for it on some surface, visceral level. Chris (and the story floating around camp) had placed just enough of a nudge in my mind that I had filled in the rest.
THE HAUNTING may not be warmly received by purist fans of either the original film or the Shirley Jackson novel that inspired both movies, but it will reward most viewers. It's a popcorn Hollywood haunted house rollercoaster, and it's a nice indication of what De Bont might be capable of in the future. He even found a way to slip in his traditional strange tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick (there's one in every De Bont film so far), this time using a cast member as the reference. I enjoyed the film, and I make no bones about it. I fully anticipate that 99.9% of all negative reviews you read about this film (and 85% of all positive ones) will feature at least one full paragraph that makes meticulous comparison of the virtues of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (nice weekend, Ed and Dan) and this film. I say they're both so different that it's futile. It's like comparing Godard's ALPHAVILLE to THE PHANTOM MENACE. They're not playing the same game, even though you could group them in the same basic genre.
Anyway, I've got to go start sewing together another patchwork beast from all the odds and ends here at the Labs for my column tomorrow. Expect a look at the suggestions you had for MPAA reform among other things. Until then...