Review: The Haunting (Don HARLOW)

The Haunting

Movie by Shirley JACKSON and David SELF

reviewed by Don HARLOW

   I went to see this reincarnation of "The Haunting" for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Well, Theo here is certainly no Elena de la Vega ("The Mask of Zorro"), but I thought the movie was good anyway.

   The obvious comparison (not considering the earlier version, which I didn't see) is with Spielberg's "Poltergeist" of some 17 years agone -- a fair comparison, given Spielberg's relationship with Dreamworks, the company that produced "The Haunting". The earlier movie depended very much on shock value ("lift 'em outta their seats!"). While I actually jumped _once_ in this movie (and there was also a not-too-graphical beheading, later, in the same part of the house -- gotta get rid of that fireplace!), by and large, despite some fairly good special effects, the film depends on story, and seemed to be more interested in keeping the viewers on the edges of their seats rather than out of them entirely. And, of course, unlike "Poltergeist", the plot in this film actually makes some sort of sense.

   In brief a group of six people (two of whom shortly leave the set for greener pastures) show up at an ancient mansion in the Berkshires, intending to stay there, more or less incommunicado, for a week; one, Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson, here showing that, even without a laser sword, he can actually act), is managing a study of insomnia, along with his assistant and four participants. But Dr. Marrow has a hidden agenda; what he is _really_ studying is group reaction to fear, and he intends to use the house to instigate such fear. And, of course, the house -- or perhaps some former occupants -- has its own agenda...

   The story revolves around Nell (Lili Taylor), one of the insomnia-study participants, the real heroine, even though she only gets third billing after Neeson and Zeta-Jones. Part of the house wants and needs her help; part of it only wants to get rid of her, in any way possible. And, of course, weird phenomena notwithstanding, her companions assume that it's all in her head, at least until the last half-hour when the special effects _really_ get out of hand.

   There's good, there's evil, there's plot, there's climax, there's denouement, there's punishment and reward, there's Heaven and Hell, there's even a cameo appearance by an elderly Bruce Dern (anybody out there remember "Silent Running"?). What more could we ask for?

   (How about "Sleepy Hollow", an SFX remake of the Washington Irving story, with Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christopher Walken as The Headless Horseman? Coming this Thanksgiving...)

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