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Moriarty reviews THE HAUNTING

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...

"Moriarty" here.

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...

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...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • July 19, 1999, 3:49 a.m. CST

    I don't want to compare, but...

    by Nordling

    I hope this is at least as scary as Blair Witch. They may be two different films, but Blair Witch scared you with things you couldn't see. The mere medium of special effcts takes the chill out - you know it's not real, so you can groove on how cool it looks, but it really doesn't scare you. It's a comfort zone. Blair Witch had no such comfort zone. But I am looking forward to this. Turning out to be a truly kickass year for horror fans, isn't it?

  • July 19, 1999, 4:20 a.m. CST


    by Anti-fanboy

    begins the TBWP comparison:) I didn't care much for all the animating of inanimate objects--seemed pretty silly to me--unless they turn out to be hallucinations induced by whatever forces haunt Hill House. However, any fans of beautifully delineated characters and eeriness should read Jackson's nebulous book.

  • July 19, 1999, 5:22 a.m. CST

    The Legend of Hell House

    by W. Leach

    For my moolah, the best modern "haunted house" movie (i.e. made after 1960), is the 1973 horror flick, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, a British production directed by John Hough. The screenplay is by Richard Matheson, who adapted his own novel, HELL HOUSE, rather faithfully, I might add. The plots of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE are virtually the same: four researchers agree to spend some time in a house seemingly haunted by spirits. Which of the team will go mad first? The researchers in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE are played by Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt. This is a very creepy film with a surprise ending. It should be relatively easy to find on video.

  • July 19, 1999, 6:02 a.m. CST

    The Changeling

    by ddecatur

    I think the best haunted house movie since the original Haunting is The Changeling starring George C. Scott. Very good mystery surrounding a Seattle mansion that no one can live in for any length of time. I liked Hell House, but thought its ending, like that in the book came up rather short.

  • July 19, 1999, 6:48 a.m. CST


    by Lethal Dose


  • July 19, 1999, 7:31 a.m. CST


    by Yossarian

    I have a kinda silly question. Is the house haunted or is it a haunted house? What I mean is, is it a house with a ghost stalking the halls, moaning and rattling chains and the ilk, or is it more like the house ITSELF is just a mean SOB; because that is a lot scarier to me than the old "shape in a sheet". I think it is much more terrifying to never know when something bad might happen. For example, one sunny, Sunday afternoon, you are, say removing beer caps that have fallen into you garbage disposal, a common scenario for me, and suddenly, just for spite it comes to life all by itself and mangles you up to the elbow. That is much scarier to me, to never know when some inanimate object might take a desire to inflict or dismemberment upon you. To never know when a pantry full of dog food and french cut green beans could turn into a stoning. Or say you are walking by the window and it shatters inward on you, spraying you with glass. Cuz, that I think is a lot worse than some benign or even malignant sprit that is more ethereal than tangible. My $0.02, 50% off.

  • July 19, 1999, 8:21 a.m. CST

    Zeta-Jones BISEXUAL!!??

    by Bronson

    Does CZS do nude scenes? Lesbo action? She is one HOT slab of meat!!

  • July 19, 1999, 8:53 a.m. CST

    I really had no will to see this film, but I caught the tv ad an

    by spike lee

    When you do a supernatural film the filmmakers can use every trick in the book, and that is fun to watch. This film has a curse already on it from 1982's Poltergeist. Poltergeist raised the bar for haunted house films, and I don't think any CGI trick will even come close to clearing the bar. The Haunting should be a fun 2 hours out of the Texas heat.

  • July 19, 1999, 8:56 a.m. CST

    Calm down, guys....

    by W. Leach

    For those of you getting hot and horny over Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a bisexual character in THE HAUNTING, you may be disappointed. According to the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly: "...a scene exploring the romantic flirtation between Zeta-Jones' and [Lili] Taylor's characters was left in the editing room..."

  • July 19, 1999, 9:26 a.m. CST

    DeBont, Haunting and The Changeling oh my

    by HarrisTelemacher

    I hate Jan DeBont but am willing to see this movie as long as he's willing to hold the camera steady for longer than 30 seconds. Anybody else want to slap him during Twister? Haunting sounds all right, based on a good book with Liam Neeson and Catherine "My Future Wife" Zeta-Jones. Big points to the poster who mentioned The Changeling, a very cool and scarey Canadian flick. I still get creeps if I hear a ball fall down stairs.

  • July 19, 1999, 11:42 a.m. CST

    lesbo action

    by Sarcasmo

    I'm sorry, I couldn't resist using that as a subject line. Mmmph... I guess when they were fleshing out the character they knew making her "bisexual" would increase revenue... a haunted house and a lesbian babe! This movie has everything! Although I'm not too much of a horror fan, I think this movie may hold promise. The pictures of the set look really good (of course, they are publicity stills) but one magazine article said the cast were afraid to hang around the set after dark. All that creepy atmosphere should mean scary, right? Well, maybe it won't but I thought it was an interesting tidbit - hope you enjoyed it!

  • July 19, 1999, 12:02 p.m. CST


    by Manaqua

    I saw the blare witch project yesterday and I didn't find it even mildly scary. I think maybe I ruined it for myself by knowing too much of the process that went into making the picture. The very last scene gave me the "willys" though. Abrupt ending, but fitting. I hope haunted does it for me.

  • July 19, 1999, 1:24 p.m. CST


    by andy1

    To all you Catherine Zeta Jones fans out there, i'm from the UK was is Catherine. I just thought it might interest you to know that before she became a movie star (after 3 years of trying)she was in a programme over here called the DARLING BUDS OF MAY what the hell was that all about I here you cry across the atlantic. well it was a twee drama about the lives of a large family (called the Larkins)in the english country side set in the late 1950's (so what i here you cry again) well Catherine played Pa larkins eldest daughter and a randy bi**h she was to, I remember one episode when she was having a fight with another beautiful girl in this strawberry patch, by the time they had finished both were half naked and covered in crushed strawberrries! Now i'm not saying this was porn, because it wasn't but its still funny and nearly naked. If any Zeta fans can get hold of it in America I would recommend it just for a laugh! by the way I vote her for Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider flick, anyone else agree?

  • July 19, 1999, 2:55 p.m. CST

    Moriarty...Harmony Gold?

    by BigJackieV

    Was just the Harmony Gold building you refer to the very same company that brought Macross over from Japan and made it Robotech? If there is a God in Heaven there will be a trilogy of Robotech movies...or perhaps Hollywood can help them finish Robotech II: The Sentinals. A fanboy can wish...and hey, what ever happend to the Battleship Yamato production where they replaced it with the USS Arizona?

  • July 19, 1999, 3 p.m. CST

    Moriarty, I've lost Faith in You

    by Saint Jill

    Sorry, Moriarty, but I've lost faith in your reviews. After raves for both Big Daddy and Eyes Wide Shut I'm afraid I can't trust your recommendations any longer. They were CRAP! Big Daddy was phony as hell and Kubrick, a genius, has gone out conning critics such as yourself into thinking he's made some kind of masterpiece. What a shame!

  • July 19, 1999, 3:55 p.m. CST

    Give it a REST, Lethal Dose

    by Kent Allard

    If someone is stupid enough to go see that LAKE PLACID crap, then they won't need any extra prodding from a studio lackey like you posting "LOOK AT THOSE SNAPPERS!" on every fucking talkback on this fucking site. STOP IT ALREADY!!

  • July 19, 1999, 5:07 p.m. CST


    by Lethal Dose

    Lake Placid is a crocodile movie! I have to support that! Do you even know what great CLASSIC movie the line "LOOK AT THOSE SNAPPERS!!!" is from?

  • July 19, 1999, 6:40 p.m. CST


    by Rmdragon

    Roamancing the stone. A fun film- i enjoyed it.. but what's the point.. if you're gonna bother to post something- at least contribute.. if not then why the f**k from Romancing the stone???? I digress... I'm looking foward to see this movie and most others, it's fun, what the hey.. What i don't understand is would this have bigger box ofice draw around say, oh i dunno.. halloween? Why is a scary haunted house movie coming out in the middle of juy.. why is Sleepy hollow coming out after Halloween? I guess the studios only have blinders on for the the two target seasons ( summer and holiday). Maybe we should move holloween? What good scary movies can I see in the weeks before for halloween? nothing. Maybe I'll be able to rent blair Witch project by then... I'm mean really. When would rather see these movies? Summer... the start of the christmas shopping season? or When halloweens right around the corner? *sigh*... studios..

  • July 19, 1999, 7:58 p.m. CST

    I thought..

    by morpheus

    this was a remake of tjhe Bela Lugosi(nm?) and Jack Nicholson flick?!And to the poster who said appparitions in sheets ain't scary,read the M.R. James short story....You'd never look at your bed in the same way again:)

  • July 19, 1999, 7:59 p.m. CST

    Well...we'll see

    by Merano

    I'm a great fan of haunted house movies though not horror in general (I like to be scared, but I don't like to be grossed out--there's a BIIIIIG difference, Hollywood, pay attention!), and I consider Wise's adaptation to be as close to perfect as a haunted house movie has ever come. Creepy, creepy film, I loved it. But even though the casting is bang-on, I have had serious reservations about this flick since I first heard that deBont was directing, and sorry, Moriarty, you haven't put any of those fears to rest. I will go and TRY to enjoy this on its own merits, but despite all the wonderful hi-tech I don't think it will come anywhere close to the original for me. So...we'll see.

  • July 19, 1999, 9:17 p.m. CST

    Moriatry's first gay experience was at Boy Scout camp!

    by Tall_Boy

    just read the "Fuck me" line in the review, folks, I have a sneaking suspision he made up the rest. don't worry Moriarty, its very normal, it all first happens to us a camp at least once. . .

  • July 19, 1999, 9:48 p.m. CST

    Darling Buds of May

    by Sarcasmo

    I loved that show! I watched the Darling Buds of May every weekend, although I never really noticed Ms. Jones... perhaps I was watching from an {ahem} different perspective... It was on PBS here in Canada so it should be on in the States too, if you feel like checking it out. It was a funny piece of country Brit humour.

  • July 20, 1999, 8:30 a.m. CST

    M.R. James

    by Halcyon Flay

    Nice namecheck for M.R. James, Morpheus - I take it that the apparition-in-sheet you were referring to came from the story "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad"? Don't go digging up old Templar ruins, folks! :)

  • July 20, 1999, 8:39 p.m. CST

    Not looking forward to it

    by marsyas

    Robert Wise's adaptation was brilliant in part because the whole thing could have been in Eleanor's imagination. From the looks of it, there is no such ambiguity here. What a pity.

  • July 21, 1999, 10:07 a.m. CST

    Saw it. Total shitfest.

    by Rolande

    I don't know who Moriarty works for, or if Harry prompts him to post golden reviews of high profile turds, featuring Phantom Menace characters. Whatever. I saw this last night, caught myself yawning and wondering when A) anything fun would happen and B) when it would just end. I dare anyone to really explain what they liked. Hell, Catherine Zeta-Jones doesn't even wear sexy outfits. Great house, though. Just a totally wasted house.

  • July 22, 1999, 5:21 p.m. CST


    by lilred

    you are so lame. just because someone happens to give a positive review of a movie & you don't agree, you have to rip on the reviewer & the movie even more. Pretty immature, I must say. And I have noticed you do it a lot. Look, we are all entitled to our OWN opinions & the people who do these reviews work pretty hard at it. So grow up, fool. If you don't like everything so much, start your own damn website. P.S. I am one of those who liked this film so HA!

  • July 25, 1999, 9:21 p.m. CST

    Roller coaster

    by Ming

    Moriarty nailed it, Haunting is a very good popcorn/get out of the heat summer movie. To often people complain because the studios make remakes because they can. The SFX are great and bring the house to life as a character. Worth the $7.00 to see it in a good theater with THX sound.

  • Aug. 14, 2006, 7:39 p.m. CST

    They're HEERRRREEEE!

    by Wolfpack