As the story goes: Eleanor “Nell” Vance (Lily Taylor) has a terrible string of bad luck and arseholes ruling her life. After caring for her invalid mother for eleven years in a rundown Boston apartment, her sister and boyfriend evict Nell from her home via her mother's last wishes. Nell receives a phone call to participate in a sleep research study helmed by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) in an isolated mansion on Hill House. She uses her newfound "freedom" and nightmares as a means for escape to join the experiment. Once all have arrived at the manor - Marrow and fellow participants Luke Sanderson (Owen Wilson) and Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones) - they're cut off from the bordering town and the house soon shows its true horrifying colors.
Honestly, they are horrifying - not in the sense of the movie being scary. Two key ingredients of horrible films are plotholes and/or unrealistic plot circumstances. While offeringcheesy moments of suspense such as unexplained drastic temperature changes, constant conviction by the main character that she is seeing ghosts, and scenes of waiting to see what's lurking behind the corner to make you jump, The Haunting is all but laughable - probably one of the only reasons I watch it; to revel in its bombastic storytelling.
What can we say about the plotholes except there are many of them. I'll list a few before naming my all-time favorite. 1. Dr. Marrow lures the research participants at Hill House under false pretenses that the study is about sleep; instead it's about fear. 2. When the house aims to destroy everyone, they do not stay outside on the nearest garden grounds but keep returning inside for more melodramatic torture.
My all time- favorite scene (shown briefly in this clip): Upon arriving at Hill House, Nell meets caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (hello cameo by Bruce Dern!) who warn they leave when nighttime arrives and lock the manor upon leaving; there will be no escape to the nearest village. The monologue by Dudley about this restriction is repeated twice for us to retain maximum retention. Then guess what happens? One of Marrow's assistants is struck in the eye when strumming her fingers of an old piano. Marrow lets them off the property by unlocking and locking the gates. While I have reason to believe that the Dudley's are just trying to spook the participants on Marrow's orders, it's still a pretty quick waste of dialogue. Call me entertained.
Also, The House Wants Babies: Poor Nell grows too close to the house's "Charles Foster Kane meets Adams Family" motifs and history. Originally created in the 19th century by a textile tycoon Hugh Crain, he wanted a house filled with children. After his plethora of children died in or following childbirth, and subsequently his wife Carolyn, he became a recluse. Upon dying, his malevolent spirit became an overbearing all-powerful entity that tracked down Nell (a descendant of Carolyn's) to join them in the afterlife. At one point, the bed comes alive and almost looks like it tries to sleep with Nell.... We never know the true intentions of the house nor the villain known as Crain - did the billions of kids he spawned truly die of natural causes? Did he force children from the local town to build his house 'cause he was just nuts? So many unanswered questions.
Jan de Bont's direction honestly tanked. It's a shame to link this masterful painting of suck to the original The Haunting and the book by Shirley Jackson The House on Haunted Hill; both which continue to invoke genuine terror fifty years after their initial release. A cinematographer turned producer turned director, two classic blockbusters came out of his Bont's early career changes only a few years before The Haunting: Twister and Speed. Setting aside their universal recognition of cheesy action movies, both actually have respectable storylines with decent balance of tension, conflict and characterization.
Surprisingly, The Haunting had greatness behind it: legendary horror author Stephen King once penned the original script and director Steven Spielberg pushed for Bont as a director, who said that he wished for The Haunting to resemble Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Something happened between his directorial debut and this one movie that just goes down in flames; it was sheer madness where nothing necessarily came together in the right way and somehow still found its way into theaters.
Originally seeing this in 1999 as a young pre-teen, I knew it was terrible, and more than ten years later, it's weaknesses become ever more enjoyable now. Unlike many blockbusterss that are cheesy but are better than most action movies today, I continue to return to The Haunting - entirely just to be entertained by its terribleness. I'm fully aware of its limitations, terrible script, hilarious CGI and convenient storylines. This is such a so-so-bad-it's-good experience; one of the many examples of a blockbuster gone busted.