Awfully Good: The Haunting

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We’ll get you in the Halloween spirit this month, starting with…

The Haunting (1999)

Director: Jan de Bont
Stars: Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson

Three strangers are brought to a creepy old house as subjects in a secret study on the effects of fear. And wouldn’t you know it, that creepy old house just happens to really be haunted!

I specifically remember director Jan de Bont doing interviews leading up to the release of THE HAUNTING and promising a very old school horror movie that was big on atmosphere and sound design and avoided special effects and cheap jump scares. I’m not sure what movie he thought he was making, but it sure as hell wasn’t that one.

These children carved in to the bed frame saw what you did and they’re very disappointed in you.

THE HAUNTING is a classic example of bad studio horror. It’s like the executives had a Scary Movie Checklist and made the filmmaker meet each stupid criteria. Pretty much all the bad cliches you’ve come to loathe in the genre are present, but none worse than the nonstop corny CGI effects used unnecessarily throughout. So many things that could easily have been done practically were rendered via computer—bed sheets, hair, statues, doors, curtains. I swear, at one point I actually saw spooky CGI crown molding. As you can guess, this helps solidify the fact that literally no part of THE HAUNTING is in any way remotely scary.

Director: “Everyone look at the scary thing to your left. No, Owen, your other left. Ah, f*ck it. Cut!”

Which is a shame because the film, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel (and not the previous 1963 Robert Wise version), actually has a decent setup. A psychologist bringing a bunch of unknowing subjects to a potentially haunted house in order to study their reactions to fear is a story that could make a great, mind-bending horror movie. And THE HAUNTING even has really impressive production design with beautiful, massive sets for each room of the house. It’s too bad it’s all wasted on cheesy execution and terrible, terrible script.

Is that someone in old age makeup? Could you not find an actual elderly person to pose for this picture?

Screenwriter David Self went on to write THIRTEEN DAYS and ROAD TO PERDITION, so I’ll chalk this stinker up to the studio’s Scary Movie Checklist and not hold it against him. However, the screenplay really is the weakest link here, full of non-existent pacing and plot movement (the majority of the film is just people sitting around listening to scary noises) and awful, unnatural dialogue like: “All my life, I’ve been waiting for an adventure. I thought it would never happen to me. I mean adventures are for soldiers or for bullfighters the women fall in love with.”

After three TAKEN movies Liam Neeson started getting cocky any time he had to answer a phone.

The cast, an all-star 1990s crew comprised of Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson and Lili Taylor, all yield surprisingly limp performances. Neeson sleepwalks through every scene and surprisingly sucks at rescuing people. Zeta-Jones plays a hot bisexual woman who might be trying to seduce Lili Taylor the entire movie. (“Mmmm, I like the way you comb your hair like that.”) Owen Wilson is the comic relief, although I don’t think he does anything funny. (SPOILER: Unless you count getting beheaded by a giant fireplace amusing.)

Michael Douglas? Really?!

Lili Taylor’s Nell is the only character given any sort of defining characteristics, but her back story and behavior throughout the film range from odd to laughable. One minute she’s inconsolably freaked out about what’s going on in the house and the next she’s happily following bloody footprints and excitedly talking to murdered ghost children. In fact she becomes obsessed with these imaginary haunted kids, constantly yelling about “the children” and vowing to protect them, even though they’re…you know, already dead.

The Death Bed remake was less subtle than the original.

Eventually, and predictably, the house reveals it’s alive with the spirit of its murderous former owner, but no one could foresee the film’s other hilarious twist that is mentioned once and then completely glossed over: Apparently it was one of the ghost children or the house itself that called Nell pretending to be a doctor at the beginning of the movie and asked her to sign up for the study—not Liam Neeson. Nell then decides out of nowhere that she’s the great, great granddaughter of the owner’s wife and has been called home to protect the children. SHE HAS TO STAY FOR THE CHILDREN! There’s a tense showdown between the CGI house and Nell where the woman calls the ghost “Grandpa” and screams about children and family, which for some reason forces the evil spirit to move from purgatory to hell. Then the sun shines and the spirit of the ghost children rises out of—

God, this really is one of the worst horror movies ever released by a major studio. I’m sorry for reminding you about it.

Plenty of terrible lines, mostly Lili Taylor talking about “children” or “family.”

Some of the best injuries/kills and some of the worst “scares.”

There’s one gratuitous shot of Catherine Zeta-Jones in a bra.

Not to be confused with THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Lili Taylor talks about “children” or “family”
  • A ghost child appears
  • The caretaker says “dark”
  • Someone is injured or dies

Double shot if:

  • Catherine Zeta-Jones is creepy around Lili Taylor

Thanks to Ed and Crystal for suggesting this week’s movie!

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email or follow him on Twitter and give him an excuse to drink.


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