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Deeply rooted in the cognitive powers of the subconscious and the imagination, “The Haunting” is a remake of the 1963 film and Shirley Jackson novel that allows one’s imagination and primal childhood fears to build the suspense within the film. Set in New England in contemporary time, the film begins with a quick introduction to the protagonist, Eleanor (Lili Taylor), and her dire situation after her sick mother passes and her relations attempt to strip her from her home and only chance at security.
Upon her sister’s departure, Eleanor receives a phone call requesting her participation in an experiment. Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) is conducting a psychological study on human fear and its varying dynamics that are produced in a group-stimulated environment. Wanting to test the limits and excesses of fear’s capabilities, Dr. Marrow decides to take his three patients to the allegedly ominous Hill House, in hopes that, after planting some ‘ghost-story’ seeds into his patients minds, their portentous environment and dynamic relations will bring about a manifestation of fear. Dr. Marrow is convinced that his three patients are completely safe and that his experiment is under rigid control; all his variables accounted for. But what Dr. Marrow wasn’t counting on was for the house to actually be haunted.
Convinced they are there in an attempt for Dr. Marrow to diagnose and cure their common disease, insomnia, the three patients set about exploring the house and its interminable halls and rooms. Meanwhile, the house’s caretaker, Mrs. Dudley, avidly insists on introducing herself to each of the patients and persistently reinforces her desire to leave before sundown. Foreshadowing evil to come, Mrs. Dudley’s ill-omened warnings of not staying “in the night, in the dark, where strange things happen and no one can hear you, in the night, in the dark”, set off a worrisome tone contrasting the ignorant patient’s perceptions of the beautiful house.
Ignoring the warning, the comically relieving yet unabashedly cynical Luke Sanderson (Owen Wilson) excavates the house and mocks its lack of horror fanfare, while the untamed Theo’s (Catherine Zeta Jones) wild ways are often checked by inexplicable events that seem to occur just after sunset. But paranormal activity persists and both patients are quickly convinced that there is something very macabre and sinister about their environment as the inexplicable activity challenges Dr. Marrow’s ability to scientifically find the logical answer to the strange occurrences.
Meanwhile, the multitude of macabre cherubic and gothic sculptures, paintings and other decorative edifices seem to possess a sinister life of their own. There is something very uneasy about the house, as if it is alive and watching their every move. But Eleanor seems to be the only one undisturbed by the inexplicable activity surrounding the house. Vacillating between apprehension and elation, Eleanor’s highly sensitized personality retains her open-mindedness to answer to the calls of voices that beseech her help. Nightly, Eleanor traverses the halls of the house in search of clues as to the horrifying secrets of the house and its former owner, Mr. Hugh Crane. Rumor has it that Mr. Crane built the magnificent house as a shrine for his wife Renee: decorating it with cherubic child-like statues in hopes of honoring their many children. But Renee was barren and all her pregnancies resulted in a miscarriage. Her depression and uneasy relations with her disappointed husband resulted in her suicide. Mr. Crane withdrew to a reclusive state whereby his actions were unknown behind the vast walls of his house, post the death of his wife.
As Eleanor unravels more of the mystery, she learns, through short trips to Crane’s study, paranormal clues and intervention and surprising evidence discovered in fireplaces, photo albums and books, that Mr. Crane remarried to a woman named Carolyn, from whom his secret could not be withheld; the secret involving the death of many, many children. Moreover, Eleanor seems to be somehow be related to Carolyn, and thus the reason the juvenile spirits request her help. But Dr. Marrow is convinced that Eleanor has simply slipped into a state of psychosis; fear having rendered her unstable and cognitively unbalanced. Convinced as she is that she is more than sane, her two fellow patients Luke and Theo, and Dr. Marrow look on in worry until the paranormal events personally encounter each of the three doubters; forcing them to believe in the evil power of the house, and its desire to harm Eleanor.
As Luke, Theo and Dr. Marrow race against time and the dark, evil spirit that is Mr. Crane, they earnestly fight to escape the house and save Eleanor. But Mr. Crane is a powerful and evil man whose sinister ways still dominate the house even after his death. With animated Griffins, statues, paintings and more coming to life before their very eyes, can the group escape the house before Mr. Cane undoes them all? Moreover, what will happen to Eleanor if she chooses to stay? But if she doesn’t stay, what happens to all those innocent children?
“The Haunting”, though cheesy at times, redeems itself through its psychological aspects and its magnificently detailed set and sound effects. Though the acting wasn’t top-notch, all of the actors did a credible job portraying their characters and their ability to connect onscreen was visually evident. The set, a fantastically overwhelming combination of gothic, Victorian, neoclassic, baroque, and even Moroccan and Indian flavors, combine to create an unbelievably majestic yet gloomily oppressive set that accurately reflects and determines the tone for the film. Moreover, 7 time Academy Winner and sound producer Garry Rydstrom gets detailed and meticulous with his ability to toy with an interminable variety of sounds and audible effects that further reinforce the terrifying suspense of the film and its psychologically horrifying tone. All in all, the house appears evil because it looks and sounds evil. Moreover, Jan de Bont went so far as to actually film the exterior shots of the house in England, whereby the Harloxton Manor (the actual building used for Hill House), is allegedly reported to be haunted itself. Rumor has it that the owner’s wife used to conduct seances, summoning her dead husband’s spirit, which to this day haunts the Manor turned College where students have reported seeing his spirit on multiple occasions.
Thus, it is the massive voids and empty spaces that linger between high-arching oppressive edifices and over-detailed macabre paintings that help evoke the proper mood reflected in the character’s emotions and the psychological suspense the film begs to express. Moreover, the attempt to isolate and separate the characters from one another in a house so vastly large and dark in tone and setting (most scenes are shot at night) helps to manifest the fears that are naturally derived from the primordial apprehension of things like ghosts under the bed, shadows in the night, etc. etc. Though the special effects are slightly overdone at times and the seamless effect to merge effect with acting can seem a bit incongruent, all in all “The Haunting” is an enjoyable film that will wet your visual appetite and stimulate your psychological fears; even if just for a few hours..
Liam Neeson is Dr. David Marrow, a scientists conducting studies on the dynamics of human fear and its dependence on group stimulation, who gathers three ‘study subjects’ under false pretense and brings them to Hill House for the scare of their lives.
Lili Taylor is Eleanor ‘Nell’ Vance, the unknown distant relation to former house inhabitant Carolyn, and whose sensitive past, emotionality, and genetic code make her the primary candidate for helping unleash the horror of the house.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is Theo, the wild woman with no boundaries and a need to push the envelope, be it in how she acts, how she dresses, or who she sees.
Owen Wilson is Luke Sanderson, the comic relief convention and grad student whose frequent participation in paid experimental surveys renders him a cynical doubter of the house and its horrid powers.