Horror Movie Review: The Haunting (1999)

The Haunting is a supernatural horror film directed by Jan De Bont. The film is a reimagining of the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Releasing in 1999, it stars Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor.

Eleanor “Nell” Vance is an insomniac who has cared for her invalid mother for 11 years. After her mother dies, her sister Jane and Jane’s husband Lou inherit the house. They eject Nell so they can sell it, and Nell faces homelessness. Nell receives a phone call about an insomnia study directed by Dr David Marrow at Hill House, a secluded mansion. She agrees to enter the clinical study.

At the house, she meets the other participants. Luke Sanderson and Theodora, along with Dr Marrow and his two research assistants. Unknown to the participants, Dr Marrow’s true purpose is to study the psychological response to fear. He intends to expose his subjects to increasing amounts of terror. Each night, the caretakers chain the gate outside Hill House. This prevents anyone from getting in or out until morning.

As the four people stay in the house, supernatural events begin happening. A mysterious force tries to open the door to Theo and Nell’s bedroom and there are banging noises against the walls. Nell starts seeing the ghosts of children in curtains and sheets. Also, a large portrait morphs into a skeletal face and is vandalized with the words “Welcome Home Eleanor” written in blood. During a heated argument, Theo and Luke deny any involvement in these events. They accuse Nell of being an attention seeker, but she denies it.

Nell becomes determined to prove that the house is haunted. She sets out to uncover the sinister history locked away as well as finding out more about her own mysterious past.

The Haunting is a film that I remember watching when it released, all the way back in 1999. I actually recall my parents renting it from Blockbuster. I would have been 8 years old at the time and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since. Even at such a young age, I didn’t think much of it. Has my opinion changed at all?

Firstly, let me talk about the house itself. All I can say is wow! The grounds, exterior and especially the interior are a real feast for the eyes. Without a doubt, it’s an incredible backdrop for a ghost story. While you do get to see a lot of it in great detail, it never feels as utilised as it probably could have been which is criminal.

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Let’s talk about the casting for The Haunting. I know many of these actors were a pretty big deal back in the 90s. Therefore, it doesn’t make no sense. However, it’s just really random. They have little to no chemistry throughout. Owen Wilson is obviously a comedic actor so many of the things that happen to him are unintentionally amusing. It’s very hard to take him seriously. There’s one scene where he attempts to escape by driving a car into the outside gate. He must only go at around 10 miles per hour, it’s pathetic but hilarious. This is after he tries beating the lock off the gate with a shovel, it’s pretty funny. Also, he literally says his signature “wow” at least 5 times, it’s distracting.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo is just plain confusing. One moment she’s a flirty, egotistical narcissist and the next she is conservative and caring. Lili Taylor is a good actress but there’s something off about her in this film. I can’t fully explain why but her performance just annoyed me. She’s pretty unconvincing. Even her screams lack believability at times. Throughout, she’s naïve, clueless and constantly doe-eyed.

Still, to be completely fair it’s not really any of the actor’s faults. The characters that they are being asked to play are as bare bones in terms of development as I’ve ever seen. Other than knowing that they suffer with insomnia, I couldn’t tell you another thing about them. Dr Marrow’s motivations are painfully underdeveloped as well.

The biggest problem with The Haunting is that it’s rated PG13. This meant that there was little they could get away with in terms of scares, blood or gore. After all, this was distributed by DreamWorks. You know, the studio behind Shrek and other fun family films. It’s about as scary as a cheap, predictable ghost train at a theme park. This film desperately needs more characters to act as fodder. Dr Marrow’s experiment makes no sense either. He’s literally conducting it on 2 people after Nell admits that she doesn’t have traditional insomnia. What? 2 people? How would any of his findings would be taken seriously? I have no idea.

I would say that the CGI in The Haunting had aged poorly but even at 8 years old I thought it looked shoddy. I’ve never been a fan of the “good” ghost idea and this film might be the reason why, it’s just lame. The ending is hilariously abrupt and rushed, leaving little explanation about what had even happened.

Overall, The Haunting is a huge disappointment. It could have been done so much better and it was. Check out Stephen King’s Rose Red or The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. The stunning, gothic house is wasted and the cast could have been utilised much more. However, I will say that it did hold my attention well enough and there are a few highlights. The house coming to life is a really cool moment. Basically, It’s by no means unwatchable. It’s just a very tame affair so does little for a seasoned horror fan. It could actually be a nice starting point for introducing someone to the genre.

  • The Final Score - 3/10
User Review
4.65/10 (2 votes)