I should say right off the bat that I did not see the original film, The Haunting of Hill House, and I am assured by several people that the original is better (how often is it not?). However, the original does not have THX and by gum they don’t have THIS house. This movie is worth seeing just for the house and for the sound design. I haven’t been this aurally impressed since The Ghost And The Darkness. (Whatever you may think of that film, it was as deserving of its sound Oscar as Saving Private Ryan) Some people go to a huge, insanely huge, amazing gorgeous, impossibly immaculate house in the middle of nowhere and have the wits scared out of them. That’s all you need to know. I was plenty scared during a good portion of this movie – more scared than I was at any time by The Blair Witch Project (but not as enthralled, if that makes sense). If there was an Oscar to be given to Locations, this movie should win it. It had BETTER be nominated for Production Design, oh my lord!
Liam Neeson sleepwalks through his role as the psychologist who has led them all here. Catherine Zeta-Jones pigeonholes her exquisite self as a sexually confident Uber-babe with more moxie than manifestness. Owen Wilson sticks his battered nose into a goodly portion of trouble most of the movie and, like Zeta-Jones, is kind of unimportant. Lili Taylor is the star of this movie – and despite having to shoulder the brunt of the inevitable goofiness attendant in any ghost story, she really comes as close as anyone can to making us believe at least her part of it. Certainly, much of the haunting implicit in the title is expressed via computer, but it’s not as over blown as The Mummy was. Well, until the end. But a great deal of the effects are or look like real things rather than computer things – blowing curtains and the like. I appreciated, from a design perspective, most of how the haunting of Hill House was portrayed. Some things are left for me to rationalize, like the silly, wooden monologue about the house by the housekeeper – I think there was a reason and I think I know what it was but I think it was left on the cutting room floor by mistake. C’est la vie.
I mentioned the sound design earlier. This house, this amazing house which, not unlike the crashed alien craft in Alien, seems to have its own biology and life, breathes. All the time. It’s not a draft, it’s not rumbling score pushing the mood, it’s this great alpha wave or delta wave or something, tickling your bones from within with its low, grumbly register and sleepy rhythm. It’s freaking cool man, and it really added to the enjoyment of the movie overall for me. OK, so some set piece scenes kind of just happen and no big deal – but then seeming throwaway scenes pick up the ball and keep you interested. Sure, Liam leaned on the base of a huge marble column and the foam that shielded a fall against that column gave a little. OK, the various images of the late owner of Hill House are…uh…operatically over the top to the point of drawing laughs from the audience. So what! It’s exciting, the sound grabs your ankles under your chair and Taylor’s performance keeps you interested until the very end when you are just marking time until Zeta-Jone’s blouse falls off. Which it doesn’t, guys, sorry. But by then you have invested over 100 minutes in the film, you should see it through. Man that house is amazing. Every door, every chaise, every light fixture, every statue, every room’s floor! The floors alone should win an Oscar.
My friend, who had seen it before I had, made a very wise observation: Zeta-Jones is stunningly beautiful, but once you get used to her, she is just kind of there. Taylor, who is non-standard in appearance in general, looks more beautiful even in scenes with Zeta-Jones because she is *acting* so well. Not that Zeta-Jones is a weak performer, but her character has nothing to do. Ultimately your eyes are naturally drawn to Taylor instead of that hot Welsh lady.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/23/99
Time in minutes 112
Director Jan de Bont