Sixty years after its release, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House remains a horror classic. In addition to Wise’s haunted house chiller, author Shirley Jackson’s Gothic novel provided the source material for the critically acclaimed Netflix series. Somewhere in between those two interpretations, action director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) delivered a remake in 1999 starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson. Though it made a decent amount of money at the box office, critics and audiences absolutely roasted The Haunting. Despite its terrible reputation, has de Bont’s bombastic remake aged well? Or is it still just a bad movie?
Three strangers suffering from insomnia response to psychologist Dr. David Marrow’s ad for an experiment at the infamous Hill House. What they don’t know is that ad is a cover story for Dr. Marrow’s true experiment – a study on fear set in a sprawling mansion with a dark history. But soon after arriving, Hill House’s new residents learn that the stories and rumors may be true. And now the house may not let them leave.
The Haunting is a Visually Spectacular Thriller At Odds With Its Source Material
If The Haunting has one thing going for it, the visuals and set design are absolutely amazing. Even after over 20 years since its release, the remake looks incredibly lush – the set location and sprawling manor offer an intricate Gothic vision. In fact, the British mansion standing in for Hill House may be the real star of The Haunting. Moreover, Phil Tippett’s (Mad God) visual effects are impressive and inventive, losing very little of their impact since the thriller’s release. Whether it’s wooden cherubs coming to life or jagged ceiling posts pinning down Lili Taylor’s ‘Nell, Tippet’s effects bring the haunted house to life in a way not seen since Poltergeist. And for a while, the visuals are enough to keep The Haunting afloat.
While de Bont knows how to work with visual effects, he shows no understanding of atmosphere, suspense, or scares.
Unfortunately, director Jan de Bont is all wrong for a Gothic horror movie. The director and cinematographer was better-suited for loud and fast action movies. While de Bont knows how to work with visual effects, he shows no understanding of atmosphere, suspense, or scares. Whereas Robert Wise’s The Haunting was a quiet, psychological study of past trauma manifesting itself in a place, the 1999 remake is a loud, bombastic movie completely at odds with the source material. At no point is The Haunting ever scary. And some scenes that should shock – including Owen Wilson’ untimely death – come off as laughable.
The Haunting Suffers From Miscasting and a Thin Screenplay
On paper, The Haunting suffers from an embarrassment of riches in terms of its cast. Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson – it’s hard to believe a cast this good could be in a movie this bad. Some of the blame lies with woeful miscasting. First and foremost, Owen Wilson (Anaconda) is completely out of place in a Gothic horror movie. There’s nothing wrong with Wilson’s performance as much as it is an issue with fit. Conversely, Zeta-Jones may be the only star from this remake to walk away relatively unscathed. Unlike Wilson, Zeta-Jones fits the ‘Theo’ character quite well and never looks out of place.
…Owen Wilson (Anaconda) is completely out of place in a Gothic horror movie.
But the weak screenplay doesn’t do any favours for either Neeson or Lili Taylor (The Conjuring, Leatherface). Oftentimes the dialogue comes off as laughable with Neeson and Taylor get stuck with the worst of it. If you ignore just how badly the screenplay ignores how university ethics and research works, Neeson frequently looks lost as Dr. David Morrow. But it’s Taylor who’s tasked with the most difficult role. Even in the original, ‘Nell’ is something of a challenging – and occasionally frustrating – character. Though Taylor’s performance is good, she’s working with downright silly dialogue and a screenplay that understands none of the character’s subtly.
The Haunting Remake Misunderstands What Made The Original Work
For about two-thirds of its runtime, The Haunting remake isn’t a bad movie per se. No, it’s never as good as Robert Wise’s original. Yet it’s not laughably bad either with about as good as set design and visuals as you’re like to ever see in a horror movie or otherwise. But the bottom falls out in the third act and middling turns into unintentionally funny. Whether it’s the miscasting, increasing overreliance on CGI effects, or thin screenplay, The Haunting’s cracks turn into gaping canyons. Despite everything in its favour The Haunting remake is a classic illustration that ‘bigger’ isn’t always ‘better’.