The Haunting, based on the classic Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, is a story that is much more focused on the human psyche than it is on the paranormal. So if the mysteries of the mind scare you, you might be terrified. Personally, having read the novel and seen both movies, I’m so glad that movies like The House on Haunted Hill are made because this hugely acclaimed ghost story is just no fun…and no fear.
THE HAUNTING (1963)
After an introduction that outlines the string of deaths over the years at Hill House, we finally get to the actual story. A doctor, hoping to explore the supernatural happenings at the house, leases the place and invites three people: the guy who will inherit the house (frickin’ Riff from West Side Story!), a tough gal with mind reading powers, and a fragile chick who has a history with ghosts (Julie Harris, aka: Lilimae on Knot’s Landing).
Sure there are some bangs, cold spots, and jiggling doorknobs, but The Haunting is pretty much a movie about Julie Harris’s mental breakdown. She talks to herself. Nonstop. To the point where I wanted to scream “Shut the fuck up, Lilimae! We don’t care what you think!” Just like I used to do when watching Knot’s Landing.
She is one of the most whiny, irritating, narcissistic characters ever and just loves to play the victim. And on top of that, rather than a horror story, this is pretty much a tale of the intimate tensions between two women who care about each other one minute and are tearing each other down the next. Just like in real life. There are even wickedly vague hints of lesbian attraction, but this was 1963, so it’s fleeting.
The near two-hour running time has a couple of bore-free moments. There’s an intense scene focusing solely on Lilimae’s face as she hears noises in the bedroom and thinks that the mind reader is holding her hand to comfort her…until she turns the lights on and learns otherwise. Unfortunately, there’s no pay off as to what actually was holding her hand because this is simply a story of the ghosts in the unhealthy mind. Ooh. Scary. Have the crazy bitch start hacking people up and maybe you’ll get my pedestrian attention.
There’s also an awesome scene in which pain in the ass Lilimae climbs a huge spiral staircase and as the doctor tries to climb it to rescue her, it begins to pull away from the wall. The tension ends with the movie’s single—and very effective—jump scare.
In the end, it’s undetermined if there are actually ghosts or if it is all in Lilimae’s head. I could have watched a fucking episode of Ghost Hunters instead.
THE HAUNTING (1999)
The remake sticks pretty close to the 1963 film for a while but manages to amp up the excitement for several reasons. Liam Neeson is the doctor who lures his people to the house by pretending it’s for a sleep study. Just the presence of this cast makes the remake more fun. Lili Taylor is the mental case and thankfully tones down the self-serving antics, Catherine Zeta-Jones is at her bitchy sexy best as the openly bisexual tough chick, and Owen Wilson rounds out the threesome, bringing welcome moments of humor.
The remake also flows better. We learn about the deaths in the house as the story unfolds rather than having them thrown at us one after the other before the action even starts as in the original. Plus, as Lili becomes more and more influenced by the insanity of the house, an actual backstory of the house’s past is developed.
Of course modern special effects make this a visual treat. There are ghost children actually flowing through pillows and curtains, secret passages, bloody footprints, skeleton scares, a killer bed, and a much more elaborate spiral staircase. Not to mention, this time, the house actually comes alive. If not even vaguely scary, it’s at least Hollywood big box office cool for sure.
For a while it’s possible to believe the horror is all in the crazy bitch’s mind, but then the sequel completely ditches the source material and makes it official; the house is evil and out to get everyone. But just when it should become most frightful because of the genuine horror turn of events, the movie becomes unintentionally funny! The performances of these experienced thespians totally fall apart and all their reactions to the horrors are laughable. Wait until you see Lili Taylor having a sword fight with a winged statue that comes to life.
I think it’s just hopeless for me. I’m never going to be a fan of Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story.