Horror Movie Month: "The Haunting" Review

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Distribution

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Horror Movie Month: "The Haunting" Review

Rating: PG-13
Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: July 23, 1999
Directed by: Jan de Bont
Genre: Fantasy/Horror

"The Haunting" was a part of the great horror movie trend of the late 1990s. In this wave, emphasis shifted away from graphic violence and the immediate threat to the lives of main characters and toward a more atmospheric sense of doom. Great Gothic sets made a comeback, as did the concept of a largely disposable cast. Dramatic tension in "The Haunting" derives less from blood-and-guts horror than it does from the impression the audience gets that merely being in the room with the characters would be enough to set the skin crawling. Indeed, movies of this sort—"An American Haunting" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" are later examples—are notable for how much doesn'thappen onscreen.

Against this backdrop, the plot of"The Haunting" hardly matters. As the movie isn't driven by anything that could be called narrative, to focus attention on the narrative structure would be, frankly, a distraction. Briefly, "The Haunting" follows three young people who think they've volunteered for a sleep study that's being conducted—not at a sleep lab, as might be expected—but at a vast, sprawling villa of the sort that only seems to appear in horror movies. The director of the study, Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), is a clinical psychologist who, it turns out, isn't interested in insomnia but, rather, the physiological effects of fear.

Breaking with any concept of ethical human experimentation, Dr. Marrow has rigged the ornate Rococo interior of the house with robotic actuators intended to simulate a haunting. His efforts are undone when it turns out the place actually is haunted by the ghost of a previous owner. Various mishaps befall the hapless test subjects, including an absolutely gorgeous sequence in which Owen Wilson is beheaded, and the whole thing wraps up with a surprising twist that makes a total hash of everything that's happened in the script up to this point.

Again,"The Haunting" is not driven by its plot. If the script had been allowed to hang together in the fashion of a more conventional horror movie, it would have failed as an example of its subgenre. "The Haunting" is to horror films what "Black Hole Sun" is to alternative rock—a deliberate departure in form and pacing. Just as the dulcimer timing of Soundgarden's music is intended to sit a listener down and force a change in expectations, so "The Haunting" forces a change in what the audience is accustomed to in a date movie. In this way, both represent the shift in perspective that took place in mass media during the decade.

The real star of"The Haunting" is the set. Not since "The Shining" has a location taken on such a Baroque presence on screen. Dark, brooding sets are lit with a nightmarish amber glow as a backdrop to friendly, "getting to know you" scenes early on. Heavy wood construction is carved into ornate crenellations that shatter the light into menacing shadows. Unbelievably creepy carvings of babies abound throughout every room (the movie's exposition makes the carvings even more disturbing). All of this swirls around the viewer, catching in the throat and refusing an attentive watcher even a moment of peace. A chill thereby comes over the audience without any clear source. The set itself is at war with the characters and drags the viewing public with it.

Jan de Bont took on"The Haunting" as a project at a time when horror movies were in flux. "Urban Legend," another horror movie in which basically nothing happens, had just been released the previous year, and efforts were underway to create the new, non-narrative structure. The director earns praise for his compositions, as almost every frame of the film has something notable about it. His eye for blocking creates pure art, as the objects in each shot are arranged—sometimes without consistency between takes—to make an impact from every angle. "The Haunting" thus takes on the semblance of a moving painting, with each frame constructed to achieve an emotional impact.

Arranging sets is only part of what a director does, of course. The other, somewhat larger, element in Jan de Bont's toolkit is the performance of the actors. Liam Neeson has a tendency to chew the scenery when he has a weak director, and so de Bont earns praise again for managing his scenes. It takes an iron will to harness Owen Wilson's dude-bro screen presence and turn it into a force that moves the story forward. Again, this is just what de Bont gets from the cast—movement in an essentially static environment.

Prodigious innovation was performed in the composition and shooting of"The Haunting." While the script doesn't actually hang together, the care with which it was brought to life makes the screenplay essentially a null factor. "The Haunting" shows what can be accomplished with good acting, great directing, and positively inspired cinematography and set design around an essentially experimental script.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5