Its reputation as a landmark of terror has made Shirley Jackson's novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," perpetually irresistible for plundering by other media. Adapted into a fondly remembered 1963 film by director Robert Wise, it's also been the basis for a less distinguished stage play. A fourth coat of paint has now been slapped on "Hill House," but don't be fooled: This latest remodeling job may be impressive on the outside, but a look around the grounds reveals that the once-proud edifice has been well and truly gutted.
Ostensibly a remake of its screen predecessor (with which it shares its truncated title), the 1999 telling initially embarks upon a similarly elegant path. The stately Hill House opens its doors to a quartet of human visitors, including Lili Taylor as a lonely spinster-in-training and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a bisexual New York party girl (wait ... isn't that redundant?). We share their awe as they explore the mansion's cavernous interior. Room after room is carved out of majestic maple and bedecked with grand gold fixtures. Floors rotate, secret passageways slide into view and an endless hallway beckons. Though far from Jackson's more conservative, more sinister vision, the set design is marvelous in its own right; it's the gateway to hell as imagined by Donald Trump.
Why, then, does nothing genuinely scary happen the entire time we're inside? Oh, things go bump in the night, all right. Unfortunately, they also go crash, boom, bang and KERPOW! Forgetting that Jackson and Wise drew fear from implication instead of demonstration, director Jan De Bont runs wild with special effects, unleashing an army of computer-generated ghosts and ghouls who bedevil our heroes with their cheap and noisy antics.
In the process, the film all but abandons its corporeal characters. Taylor's Nell, Zeta-Jones's Theo and Owen Wilson's boyish Luke Sanderson are guests of the shifty Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), who claims to be conducting a study of the trio's sleep disorders but is secretly monitoring their fearful responses to the house's horrors. When the deception is revealed, the four bicker for about a minute, then go back to their real business of providing bland targets for De Bont's undead firing squad. From there on in, the actors' faces are awash in embarrassment, not dread.
Even the film's quieter moments are suffused with unreality. Early in the story, the temperature inside the house abruptly drops to Arctic levels. Nell and Theo note with fright that they can suddenly see their own breath, but what we see are great clouds of dialed-in CGI whiteness that billow from their mouths and nostrils as if they'd just sucked "Casper the Friendly Ghost" out of a dormitory bong. Couldn't someone simply have turned the on-set thermostat down a few degrees?
Most of the blame for this butchery goes to De Bont ("Speed," "Twister"), who shows less interest in relating a simple haunted-house story than in engineering a theme-park ride of pure overkill. But additional brickbats go to DreamWorks Pictures co-chieftain Steven Spielberg, whose advertised "contributions" to the film continue his track record of wringing the life out of every blue-chip property he acquires. Spielberg's crass hand is all over the dumbed-down script, which reduces Hill House's history of unexplainable evil to a moral battle for the souls of some adorable, ghostly kids. It's yours to guess if the spirited tykes are set free or doomed to wander the halls forever -- but first remember that this is the same man who gave even the Holocaust a happy ending.
Never a pleasant place to spend the night, Hill House is now totally unlivable. With the specter of Jackson wailing mournfully down its corridors, thirsting for vengeance against those who have defiled her home, who can get a minute of sleep?
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