The UnPopular Opinion: The Haunting
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Guillermo Del Toro's magnificent Gothic horror film CRIMSON PEAK hit theaters last weeken to less than stellar box office numbers. Once again, the haunted houe film appears to be firmly within the grip of found footage films and low budget affairs like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS rather than the big budget spectacle that studio horror is capable of offering. Back in 1999, another big budget haunted house film hit theaters and while the opening weekend was impressive, it also failed to meet box office expectations. Still, sixteen years later, THE HAUNTING remains one of the most underappreciated studio horror films ever made. Critically panned and nominated for multiple Razzies, THE HAUNTING is one of those movies that requires the viewer to overlook the two dimensional characters in favor of the intricate set design and atmosphere of the setting.
As far as remakes go, THE HAUNTING pales in comparison to the 1963 original. But, unlike many films from decades gone by, the Jan De Bont directed film manages to create a house that not only feels real but also really haunted. This primarily comes as a result of the impeccable work by WHAT DREAMS MAY COME set designer Eugenio Zanetti who realizes a cavernous mansion sprawling with secrets and menace that I have not seen on display until, well, Del Toro's CRIMSON PEAK. There is an exaggerated Hollywood look to Hill House that puts it in line with the big screen's best haunted houses, but what THE HAUNTING does right is make this house a character unto itself. The 1960 Robert Wise film has a Hill House haunted by spirits and supernatural phenomenon, but the 1999 house is a living, breathing monster.
Assuming you aren't already spitting on me through your computer screeen for loving this movie, you are probably already formulating the question of the poor dialogue and periodically non-sensical screenplay in David Self (THE WOLFMAN, ROAD TO PERDITION) and Michael Tolkin (THE PLAYER, DEEP IMPACT). Your question probably stems from how I can overlook such a big component of the film that falls flat for many viewers. My answer? It doesn't matter when it comes to THE HAUNTING. The 1963 original stayed very close to Shirley Jackson's brilliant story and gave us characters that you cared about. While I do think three-dimensional characters and a strong script are vital in most films, THE HAUNTING is more of a roller coaster ride rather than a character study. If you look at the movies directed by Jan De Bont like TWISTER and SPEED, they aren't about the psychology of the characters but rather the spectacle and adrenaline on screen.
THE HAUNTING is a movie that would have been 3D if it were made today, but even without stereoscopic enhancement, De Bont's film feels visually deep and interactive. When a movie can make you feel is if you are virtually there with the characters, that is an achievement of filmmaking. Visiting Disneyworld or Universal Studios, you are given rides that provide the illusion of narrative but only as a delivery method for thrills and chills. THE HAUNTING offers several well written scenes through it's running time that help turn the aura of horror into a feeling of dread and menace that sells the fear the characters are experiencing. THE HAUNTING was butchered by critics for the use of CGI effects who felt it undermined the psychological horror that made the first movie such a classic.
THE HAUNTING is by no means the best haunted house film of all time, but there is a lot here to enjoy. The film is steeped in conventions of the genre, something many critics wrote off as cliche. But, when you have people trapped in a house possessed by evil spirits, there is only so much you can do without changing the entire dynamic and thus eliminating the focus of a haunted house movie. Guillermo Del Toro cited Robert Wise's film as one of the inspirations for CRIMSON PEAK and took his film in a very different direction. De Bont's film distances itself from the 1963 movie by showing us the ghosts, rather than telling us about it.
I am reminded quite a bit of an old PC game called "Phantasmagoria" that took a mature, interactive approach to a similar tale as THE HAUNTING. Like that game, THE HAUNTING feels like we are exploring it along with the characters and I cannot help but feel like pausing the movie and absorbing each room as it is shown on screen. Some of the casting doesn't quite work, in particular Owen Wilson, but the three main stars fit the material. Catherine Zeta Jones may be the flashiest actress as this was at the height of her fame and Liam Neeson was still in his post-SCHINDLER'S LIST acting phase, but this is truly Lili Taylor's showcase. The indie actress has always been a mainstay in her career but is rarely given a chance to take center stage in a big budget production. It would be over a decade before she appeared in THE CONJURING and showed us again why she is so good at what she does.
Ultimately, THE HAUNTING is not as scary a film as horror buffs would have liked and a little too sanitized to appeal to teenagers wanting a good date movie. But, as far as the Hollywood new wave of PG-13 horror movies go, you can do a lot worse than this movie. It is a beautiful movie with some great cinematography and some of the best set design of the last twenty years. You rarely hear accolades like that for a horror film but I defy you to watch this movie and not be stunned by the house. It only took sixteen years for us to get CRIMSON PEAK, a worthy successor to THE HAUNTING. Hopefully it doesn't take another sixteen to get an additional gothic masterpiece.
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