The Haunting Remake: CGI Ghosts Can’t Conjure Up Scares

The ‘haunted house‘ is a staple of the horror genre. Vast hallways. Cobwebs. Creepy paintings. Eccentric caretakers. A bloody history of tragedy. These familiar tropes have coalesced into some eerily fantastic horror movies from The Innocents to The Amityville Horror to Poltergeist. Undoubtedly, one of the best haunted house movies is Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Critics rightly regard the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as one of the best horror movies of all time. Not surprisingly, Hollywood hoped lightning would strike twice. Dreamwork Pictures produced and released a big budget remake in the summer of 1999. Did the remake conjure up the same scares? Or was it haunted by the original movie’s legacy?

The Haunting is

In The Haunting, director Robert wise combined the Gothic atmosphere of classic Universal Monsters movies with psychological horror. It’s precisely this combination that makes The Haunting a timeless genre classic. Wise relies on shadows and sounds to elicit suspense. The Haunting understands that what you don’t see is often scarier than what’s explicitly shown on the screen. Richard Johnson’s narration of Hugh Crain’s tragic past, including the death of his first wife, shows just enough to unnerve. A later scene where Eleanor realizes the hand she’s holding in the dark doesn’t belong to her roommate, Theo, remains one of the most genuinely scary horror movie scenes filmed.

Cinematographer Davis Boulton exploits the black and white photography, casting Crain’s massive Gothic mansion in foreboding shadows.

Like most older horror movies, The Haunting is a slow-burn that builds its suspense incrementally. Much of the movie works due to its rich atmosphere. Cinematographer Davis Boulton exploits the black and white photography, casting Crain’s massive Gothic mansion in foreboding shadows. There are times where the movie transports you to the winding halls, making you feel as trapped as its characters. This is the kind of movie you need to watch in the dark. Though some aspects of the characters, particularly Julie Harris’ ‘Eleanor’, feel dated, The Haunting remains an utterly watchable horror movie.

The Haunting Remake All CGI, No Scares

Without a doubt, director Jan de Bont has a knack for dazzling visuals. Look no further than his first directorial efforts – Speed and Twister – for examples. Unfortunately, de Bont’s talent or filming big action set pieces didn’t translate well to Shirley Jackson’s source material. In spite of its gothic setting and the psychological horror at the heart of the story, de Bont opted for an overdose of CGI trickery. And it’s definitely an overdose. Gone are the ambiguity and suspense of Wise’s original adaptation. Instead, de Bont substitutes scares with paintings and statues coming to life. The Haunting remake looks good – it still looks good – but it’s soulless and devoid of scares.

Gone are the ambiguity and suspense of Wise’s original adaptation.

Oddly, though The Haunting remake boasts a stellar cast, no one fares very well. Is it miscasting? The screenplay? Or perhaps it’s the direction. But The Haunting definitely miscast Owen Wilson. Don’t get me wrong – Wilson is talented. He’s just wrong for the movie and the role. Both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor are stuck in roles that … This feels more like a screenplay issue. Taylor’s ‘Nell’, for example, hasn’t been adapted for a more contemporary time period. Not even Liam Neeson could save The Haunting.

Story Re-Tread Leaves Remake Feeling Pointless

Yes, The Haunting remake is also based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. As such, one would expect both movies to follow the story and familiar narrative beats. Nonetheless, remakes can re-imagine, re-contextualize, or even pull different themes or ideas from source material. Last year’s Netflix hit, The Haunting of Hill House, is a perfect illustration of finding something new in familiar material. Comparatively, de Bont’s remake is largely content to follow Robert Wise’s template. Writer David Self’s (The Wolfman) screenplay makes superficial revisions to place the movie in the late 1990’s. Otherwise Self doesn’t adapt the source material to pull out any new themes that could have addressed more contemporary cultural anxieties.

As a result, the remake drifts away from the original movie’s more ambiguous psychological horror.

The few changes de Bont and Self introduce in their remake are flashy additions designed to shock. This version of The Haunting throws in some PG-13 violence and more visual horror. de Bont knows his way around a good action scene. Everything looks good. But the result of this approach is that the remake drifts away from the original movie’s more ambiguous psychological horror. As a result, it’s a lot less scary. This is a remake made for a more impatient MTV-based audience. What’s strange with this approach is that The Haunting is kind of slow and boring for its first 45 minutes or so. At times, it feels like de Bont was trying to make two different movies – a serious horror movie and a slick action film.

The 2000’s Wasn’t The Only Decade With Bad Horror Remakes

Following its release, critics savaged The Haunting remake. It even earned several Razzie nominations. That’s a far fall from grace from its source material and Wise’s original adaptation. Remakes can work – Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is proof. But Flanagan’s Netflix series re-imagined the source material, breathing in plenty of new ideas and themes. In contrast, de Bont’s remake rested on CGI upgrades that looked good, but weren’t particularly scary. No one expected a remake of The Haunting to be ‘better’ than the original movie, but this efforts shows that the 2000’s weren’t the only decade that churned out disappointing do’overs.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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