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THE HAUNTING

You want a snap judgement? This film sucked. I was expecting it to be bad, but was stunned by just how awful it is. First and foremost Ė itís not the least bit scary! I saw the trailer for The Sixth Sense before The Haunting, and those two minutes frightened me more than this entire film. And this is from someone who is not all that hard to frighten. Ghost stories usually work on me, but all this one succeeded in doing was boring me. It didnít even make me jump. Hell, Iím a career neurotic who drinks half-a-dozen or more cups of strong coffee a day. My nerves are shot. Everything makes me jump Ė except The Haunting. The skeleton bit might have worked, except that the framing of the shot telegraphed exactly what was going to happen. And thatís my next complaint: the filmís total lack of subtlety and ambiguity.
There is never the slightest doubt over whatís going on in that house because nothing is left to the imagination. The effects are in our face right from the moment the characters set foot in the house. I wish someone could convince modern film-makers that CGI effects are not, in themselves, frightening. Itís all in the way theyíre used, not just the fact of them. Frankly, the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet is scarier than most of what was tossed up here. Jan De Bontís direction is relentlessly heavy-handed. Everything is laboured, everything shoved down the viewerís throat. (As we watch De Bontís camera panning up and down the nasty spiky things hanging over Eleanorís bed for about the thirtieth time, Iím sitting there thinking, Is that enough, Jan? Are you quite sure that everyone in the audience can see whatís coming?) Another major problem is the house itself. Itís absurd. Never for a moment do you believe that youíre seeing a real house Ė everything about it screams Movie set! Movie set! And since the effects and the sets donít work, there is nothing to distract the viewer from the screenplay, which is horrendously bad. The tampering with the original story proves disastrous. Instead of all of the participants having a reason to be in the house, the current scenario makes the presence of anyone but Eleanor irrelevant. The characters of Theo and Luke are utterly superfluous, except as house-fodder. Even Dr Marrow serves no real purpose besides kicking off the "plot", while his character is nothing more than everyoneís favourite clichť, the Unethical Scientist doing an Illegal Experiment. (One of these days Iíll see a movie with an ethical scientist doing a legal experiment, and the shock will probably kill me.) But if the screenplay is bad, the performances are worse. Liam Neeson really ought to see a doctor about his somnambulism. Catherine Zeta-Jones proves conclusively that, as an actress, sheís a great clothes-horse. Owen Wilson clearly wasnít interested in even trying to disguise the pointlessness of his character; it was a great relief when the house finally disposed of him. (If it had done it about an hour earlier, we would have had cause for celebration. Oh, and a note to the kid sitting in front of me: youíre quite right, his nose is weird.) Lili Taylor, to her credit, does try hard, but is defeated by the inanity of her character and the embarrassing badness of the storyís denouement. The filmís plot is never for a moment credible, but by the time we reach the big showdown scene, with Eleanor confronting the spectre of her great-grandpappy and shouting, "Itís about family! It was always about family!", my Oh-Please-O-Meter had not just gone off-scale, it had blown a gasket. Seriously, after seeing this film, the muscles around my eye-sockets were sore from all the eye-rolling Iíd done. The Haunting is a text-book example of whatís wrong with film these days: millions upon millions of dollars spent on effects, and hardly a thought given to the writing, the acting, or the intelligence of the audience. Itís flashy, empty, and insulting. The only purpose it serves is to highlight what a good film Robert Wiseís 1963 version is. If you get the chance, watch it, and see what can be achieved with imagination and talent in place of a big budget. Better yet, read the book. Apart from being a truly frightening story, it begins with my nomination for the best opening paragraph ever written.
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And You Call Yourself a Scientist