Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been largely regarded as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time by critics, writers, and filmmakers. Jackson’s novels and short stories, such as 1948’s The Lottery, still resonate with modern audiences and are often subjected to sociological and literary analysis such as with the author’s skill of interweaving mental illness and the supernatural in The Haunting, or in how we relate to our communities in The Lottery. With, of course, a layer of primal terror just beneath the surface always ready to bubble over to reveal our inner fears.
Arranged differently in each variance of the story, The Haunting (or The Haunting of Hill House) focuses on a group of individuals planning to spend an extended period of time in a rather large estate. The estate in question always comes with a paranormal background in which one of the more sensitive members of the group becomes particularly affected. The first adaptation of Jackson’s tale arrived as 1963’s British horror film The Haunting directed by Robert Wise. Like the book on which it is based, 1963’s version has been widely regarded by many critics and fan polls as one of the all-time most effective horror flicks. Recently, Jackson’s tome has been revitalized on Netflix as an anthology series with a new take on the events of the novel. So far, the critical consensus has identified the new show as incredibly satisfying.
Then, of course, there was the 1999 revival of Jackson’s work that was critically panned at the time. Directed by Jan de Bont (Speed, 1994) and starring Lili Tayler, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson, critics at the time did not respond well to the heavy use of CGI and what many perceived as an uneven screenplay. This time around the group is led (or misled) by Doctor David Marrow (Neeson) into Hill House under the pretense of a sleep analysis experiment. The story begins with sensitive Eleanor “Nell” Vance (Taylor) as she meets fellow troubled sleepers Theo (Zeta-Jones) and Luke (Sanderson). The grand house comes alive the moment Nell enters the house and does not want to let her or the others go.
Depending on how you look at it, Jan de Bont’s The Haunting came either too soon or too late. This version does lean heavily upon CGI effects, which were just beginning to become a common staple of the horror and action genres. At the time, CGI effects could still be hit or miss; however, despite the criticisms of their overuse in de Bont’s picture, 1999’s The Haunting showed viewers how they could be done in a beautiful and chilling way. Unfortunately for The Haunting’s release, audiences were still immersed in the “real-life” terror that came with the resurgence of slasher films. Further upsetting any chance 1999’s The Haunting had of scaring audiences with atmospheric style came the arrival of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, released in the United States only a week before.
One can argue that the late 1990’s belonged to the era of the slasher resurgence brought upon by the success of Scream (1996). While slowly becoming savvy to the clever quips of the Scream generation of scary movies, audiences were resistant to a ghost story. They wanted their killers to be flesh and blood with clever motives and extended teen chase sequences. The other game-changer of this time period was The Blair Witch Project. Instead of making a ghost look real, as attempted in de Bont’s The Haunting, The Blair Witch Project took a supernatural force and shocked the audience into a visceral setting that made them question if what they were watching was real. Found footage horror was born and movie-goers were taken to the next level in the horror experience.
Undeniably stylish, the ‘90’s update of Jackson’s story relied heavily on atmosphere and what could be “created” via CGI to scare an audience. Found footage films would eventually overstay their welcome by the late 2000’s; however, at the time, the novelty was an unbelievably fantastic way to scare the hell out of horror audiences. The Haunting’s ghost story almost seemed quaint in comparison. Like something a punk horror fan might find on Lifetime’s Friday night lineup. It has been 20 years, however, and the time has come to judge 1999’s The Haunting on its own merits.
The cast is quickly whittled down to the four main leading actors all sharing more than enough talent to generate a solid ensemble. Yet, from the moment she enters the screen, Catherine Zeta-Jones steals the show. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine and authentically capture the spirit of the ghost story. Still, Zeta-Jones’ Theo quickly overshadows the other performances. She has an unfair advantage, as Theo is an audacious and flamboyant woman not lacking in confidence. Zeta-Jones could, however, easily make her appear gaudy, especially standing next to Lili Taylor’s delicate Nell within the grand settings of Hill House. Instead, the audience not only believes this woman could exist, but in the capable hands of Zeta-Jones can even see her humanity and genuine compassion.
Zeta-Jones gives the most memorable performance in this adaptation. Nevertheless, her three co-stars clearly know what they are doing. Lili Taylor’s vulnerable portrayal of Eleanor “Nell” Vance is pitch perfect, and she effortlessly encapsulates the loneliness of the character. She is who we follow into de Bont’s world through our understanding of her distrustful instincts generated from a frustrating past. Owen Wilson is the carefree Luke that could quickly become obnoxious; however, Wilson strikes the right balance between charming and foolish with his natural charisma. As the deceitful doctor in over his head, Liam Neeson is successful in handling the tricky part of David, as the audience knows right away this man is lying to the others, and Neeson prevails in disarming the viewer into believing he means well.
Of course, there could be considered a fifth leading role in Hill House, itself. A wonderland that soon dissolves into a carnival funhouse of more tricks than treats, the house that hosts these very different people comes alive through de Bont’s creation. Jan de Bont showcases the skills he learned from his past as a cinematographer (Cujo, 1983) in conjunction with the blockbusters he directed (Twister, 1996) in order to make audiences believe Hill House really exists. Ultimately, in terms of horror and suspense, the film lands somewhere in the middle of the road. Still, de Bont generates an atmospheric thriller that tells a pretty good ghost story.
Which is why it is kind of perfect that de Bont’s The Haunting is being released to Blu-ray on October 20th. The Haunting is a solid choice for the regular person that wants to join in on the Halloween spirit, but hardcore horror selections might not be their thing. Definitely for those folks that want a few good thrills and feel like they are watching a scary movie, but still sleep soundly that night. At the same time, The Haunting is not condescending and keeps enough of Shirley Jackson’s engaging material intact to provide audiences with a few theoretical questions to ponder. Believable performances and fun visuals will keep the viewer mostly entertained. Nobody will be jumping out of their seat, but there will be a satisfying gasp or two throughout the experience.
The Haunting adaptation from 1999 is more of a ghost story and less an analysis on human nature. The feature begins with asking interesting questions but soon gives way to the kind of story kids might tell around a campfire or about the creepy house in their town that everyone knows to stay away from. These kinds of ghost stories either scare you or do not. Personally, ghost stories are not my particular brand of horror, but even at the time I could appreciate the kind of tale being spun by de Bont. The kind of tale that belongs to the horror genre no matter what subgenre you prefer.
The limited-edition Paramount Presents Blu-ray is presented in collectible packaging with a neat foldout image of the film’s theatrical poster. The film is newly remastered from a 4K transfer, supervised by Jan de Bont, and looks amazing on screen. The Blu-ray is a bit anemic on special features; however,there is a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette and new Filmmaker Focus with the director. I may be dating myself a bit, but I originally saw The Haunting when it was released it theaters. DVDs were just becoming a popular fixture at the time, and this flick was one of the first DVDs that I ever owned, as it was obvious this adaptation was intended as a visual story meant to be seen at the highest quality available at the time. It was a personal thrill for me to now own it at an even higher quality on Blu-ray.
The Haunting will be released on Blu-ray October 20th.
WICKED RATING: 7/10