An Examination: The Haunting (1963) and The Haunting (1999)

After our unintentionally hilarious viewing of the horror classic ‘Tentacles’ (pfft!)  the night before, my girlfriend and I decided that it was time for a GOOD horror flick. One movie I’ve been curious about for years was the original version of ‘The Haunting’ from 1963, adapted from a novel called ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (Shirley Jackson). I’ve heard nothing but good things about this flick…especially when it’s compared to the EXTREMELY Hollywoodized remake from 1999. Now THAT version I’d seen before…once…when I got it for free while working at one of the numerous video stores that pepper my resume’. I remember that it didn’t exactly blow my skirt up, and I more or less dismissed it outright. So, fast forward 16 years…and it’s like seeing it for the first time, all over again. Yeah…lucky me. Admittedly, the idea for this Examination popped into my peanut-sized brain halfway through the Original, as I was having an interesting reaction to the film, which was far more than I could remember about 1999’s version. Jumping from the first one straight into the second seemed like the logical thing to do on an uneventful, stormy-as-hell Saturday night. I cued up, cracked a beer, popped open the recliner, and hit PLAY.

The Haunting (1963)

I knew the basic premise of this flick going in. Back in ’63, this was probably some pretty ‘novel’ material, but way up here at the tail-end of 2015, it’s old hat. When you’ve seen one ‘haunted house’ flick…you’ve pretty much seen them all. Sure, once in a while someone adds SOMETHING new to the canvas, but there are reasonable expectations going into a movie like this, nowadays. Having said that, one element that did elevate my interest in seeing this was Director Robert Wise. Prior to this, the two films of Wise’s that I had seen were the 1951 sci-fi classic ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, and 1979’s ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture’. Though having not seen them (I know…blasphemy), I knew that he’d also helm’d ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ (1958), ‘West Side Story’ (1961), and ‘The Sand Pebbles’ (1966); all of which are well-renowned films that I KNOW I must eventually see (so many movies…so little time). So, based on that filmography, I wanted to see what his meticulous direction would do with a ‘horror’ movie like this.
‘The Haunting’ opens with a narrated history of ‘Hill House’; an huge old mansion in the countryside. It seems that SOMETHING has always been ‘off’ about the property, even going back to it’s initial construction by a multi-millionaire name ‘Hugh Crain’. Along the way, the house was probably responsible for the death of at least two of ‘Crain’s wives. One died in a carriage accident within sight of the foreboding house, while the other opted to take a final swan dive off a tall, spiral staircase with a rope cinched around her neck. Once the film has caught us up on the ominous history of what will become our main setting, we meet a ‘Dr. John Markway’ (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator intrigued by the stories he’s heard about the house’s dark past. Gaining permission from the current owner of the property, who doesn’t live anywhere near it, he plans to use the place for a detailed investigation into possible supernatural aspects, prior to it being put on ‘the market’. ‘Markway’ compiles as list of worthy assistants, and gets to work. We then meet ‘Eleanor’ (Julie Harris), a young woman in the middle of an estate dispute with her sister and brother-in-law after the recent passing of their invalided mother. It seems that ‘Eleanor’ was the sick woman’s care-taker for the last decade and as a result, has become something of an aimless recluse with possible mental instability issues. She receives ‘Markway’s invite and decides this potential adventure could be just the thing to break her out of her anti-social shell. And off she goes. Upon arriving at the huge, ominous house, ‘Eleanor’ meets the creepy caretakers, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dudley’. These two weirdos are hell-bent on not being on the property after dark, and they convey this info in the most unsettling manner possible. After this, we meet bohemian psychic ‘Theo’ (Claire Bloom), over-eager real-estate agent ‘Luke’ (Russ Tamblyn), and ‘Markway’; all of whom plan to stay in the house for the next while during this ‘investigation’. The list had been much longer, but it seemed that the others all came to their senses and bailed on the party. It doesn’t take long for the supernatural bumps-in-the-night to begin…and ‘Eleanor’s fragile grip on reality to begin to crumble.
What makes this version of the story work is the use of subtlety and clear characterizations. The subtlety aspect may have been governed by the limitations of the budget, but it did work in favor of the creepy atmosphere that the movie carries with it, while the characters all felt distinct in their motivations and mannerisms. They fit into the story well. In my opinion, the only one that wasn’t ‘all that she could be’ was ‘Eleanor’. It may have been the way she was written but I found her to be a whiny, unpleasant and, at times, irritatingly bi-polar little bitch. This may be something of a back-handed compliment to actress Julie Harris, as she certainly managed to get those portions of the character across…but I don’t see it as a ‘plus’ for a movie if you want to slap that character in the face and scream “SNAP OUT OF IT!!” ever time she’s on screen.
Getting back to The Good, one of the first things that caught my eye was Robert Wise’s ‘eye’. The man’s shot compositions were immaculate, as has been clearly evidenced in the previous two films of his I’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed. Unless it was deliberately otherwise, all of his shots (done in beautiful Black and White) had a surgical level of symmetry to them. Everything lined up and when a shot moved…it moved for a reason.
The Plot is of the ‘slow burn’ variety, as the house reacts more and more forcefully to their presence, especially that of ‘Eleanor’. Things really kick up a notch when ‘Markway’s estranged wife ‘Grace’ (Lois Maxwell) turns up unexpectedly to keep tabs on her husband and his mucking about with the supernatural, much to ‘Eleanor’s school girl-like disappointment. ‘Grace’, for reasons I never figured out, opts to sleep away from her husband, in a far-off Nursery where a little girl once grew old and died, in the bed that still occupies the dusty room. Something then happens in the night, and ‘Grace’ goes missing, leading to a frantic and suspenseful search through the premises and a ‘ratcheting’ of the pace.
I really appreciated the way that Wise chose to make the house a full-on character of it’s own. His use of mirror’s and their reflections, coupled with the oodles of eerie statues all over the house, gave the impression of the interlopers being continuously watched and studied. Many of the exterior establishing shots, often shot from a low vantage point, also effectively conveyed a feeling of oppressive dominance over the characters and kept the atmosphere consistent, regardless of where a scene was taking place.
All in all, 1963’s ‘The Haunting’ is an effective, cinematic product of it’s time. It’s a beautifully shot and competently edited story that takes the ‘less is more’ approach to the supernatural aspects and therefore, lends credence to the idea that SOME of what ‘Eleanor’ is experiencing may very well be in her head, adding a psychological ‘slant’ to the proceedings. It’s just too bad that I had a hard time sympathizing with her unhinged bitchiness and awkward social skills. ‘The Haunting’ turned out to be not as amazing as I hoped it would, but it’s still a gorgeously shot movie with a consistently eerie atmosphere. When it comes to a ‘haunted house’ flick…sometimes that’s all you need.

The Haunting (1999)

Holy shit! I knew this version wasn’t great…but I’d honestly forgotten about just how badly this particular flick sucks! This movie made me angry, plain and simple. Once upon a time, a celebrated cinematographer named Jan De Bont stepped into the Director’s circle and in 1994, his directorial debut, the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be ‘Die Hard’ clone ‘Speed’, hit the ground running. De Bont was now a director to be reckoned with…or so it seemed. Next came the dumb-but-fun summer popcorn flick ‘Twister’, in 1995. Though a little dim in the ‘smarts’ department, the movie made a ton of dough and everyone waited with baited breath to see what the man would give us next. And it was 1997’s ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control’. Um…yeah. I haven’t seen it since I caught it in the theatre, but I distinctly remember it being insultingly bone-headed, silly and lame. It kind of spat in the face of the kick-ass first movie…and that’s where De Bont began to slip. When an estimated (and ridiculous) budget of $160 million (Why?!!) yields a comparatively pathetic return of only $48 million…your career in Hollywood’s in trouble. I can’t help to compare this example to what happened to ‘action’ Director Renny Harlin; a shining up-and-comer with a series of mega-hits like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master’ (1988), ‘Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and the awesome ‘Cliffhanger’ (1993) under his belt. The guy could do no wrong!! Then…the bloated and moronic (but still kinda fun) cinematic failure ‘Cutthroat Island’ happened in 1995…and his career never recovered. De Bont was now on the same trajectory. So I guess after ‘Speed 2’ got flushed and went swirling, the adaptation of a critically popular ‘horror’ movie, boasting a well-known and attractive cast, would be just the ticket to get him back in Hollywood’s good graces, in De Bont’s eyes. Yeah…THAT didn’t exactly work out. Like…at all.
This version of ‘The Haunting’ opens with a ‘Dr. David Marrow’ (Liam Neeson) putting the final touches on a study in fear and the human behaviour it spawns. Under false pretenses, he plans to get a group of insomniacs together in the empty and massive ‘Hill House’ and see what happens. We’re then introduced to the new ‘Eleanor’ (Lily Taylor) as she engages in verbal sparring with her family, once again in the wake of her long-suffering mother’s death. She receives an invite to partake in a ‘sleep study’ and decides to use this as an escape from the memories of her dying mother and the manipulations of her sister and brother-in-law. Once she arrives at the stupidly over-sized house, she meets ‘Theo’ (the stunningly gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones); a pampered socialite with expensive tastes who doesn’t sleep, and ‘Luke’ (Owen Wilson, being ‘Owen Wilson’), also having trouble keeping his eyes closed at night. After some ‘gettin to know ya’ among the group, badly CG’d supernatural shit begins to happen…and this movie get really, REALLY stupid.
Good gawd!…this flick is a shining example of ill-advised Hollywood excess, and no one can tell me otherwise! Whereas the 1963 version was a study in subtlety and atmosphere…this one is an excuse to dial EVERYTHING up to 11, and to do it with SO much shoddy CG that any suspense or tension is wrung out of the story due to the visual distraction. How it was that NO ONE on the production realized that the key to success with the original was what we DIDN’T see, is baffling. There’s no mystery to the supernatural shenanigans in THIS flick, as everything that is supposed to be a spectral entity or ominous symbol of lurking evil is shown in plain fucking sight! We see it all…and it’s all pixels! Now, if they’d opted to strategically place their CG at key points in the story and not blown their load by putting the quickly-dated effects SO in our faces SO constantly, they may have done the flick some favors. But nope. They missed that boat entirely.
Another area where they seriously dropped the ball was the idiotic script. This shit is just stupid. Sure, the base idea parallels the ’63 version, but the small changes to the characters and situation are so dumb and so lifeless, and don’t connect in any way that satisfied me. Especially in the 3rd Act, where everything goes bananas, for some reason that is never given solid connective tissue. Things just…happen, in among a bunch of Gumby-looking computer graphics…and yelling…and screaming. It quickly became obnoxious.
Another aspect that became obnoxious was some of the casting and direction, ESPECIALLY where Lily Taylor is concerned. I’d love to blame her shortcomings on the way the character was written and directed, but I’ve ALWAYS had an issue with her. Not to be COMPLETELY insensitive, but there’s something about her that always comes across as slightly mentally handicapped. It might be her mannerisms or her facial expressions, but something makes it hard for me to take ANY performance of hers seriously. Couple that with this irritating and illogically written ‘character’, and my annoyance with the movie steadily mounted every time she was onscreen. Catherine Zeta-Jones, while drop-dead gorgeous (this was around the time when she was the much sought-after Sex Symbol Du Jour), was bland and one-note as the vacuous and vain femme fatale wannabe, ‘Theo’. Really, they should’ve stuck with the whole ‘psychic with a penchant for cruel manipulation’ trait from the original. That would’ve been an interesting angle, and one I’d like to see what Zeta-Jones would’ve done with it. As it is, we just get her showing up to be beautiful. Blah. Liam Neeson and Owen Wilson do what they can with the paper-thin characters the lazy script had for them.
I’m sure that I could spend much more time detailing the pathetic shit this movie tries to shove down our collective throats, but enough’s enough!
All in all, ‘The Haunting’ (1999) is another sad example of Hollywood thinking that BIGGER = BETTER. Taking the original and just dialing EVERYTHING up to ‘EXTREME’ (seriously, did Hill House and everything in it NEED to be SO over-sized?!! Just ridiculous.) does not make a good movie that’ll resonate with the audience, as this one’s performance can clearly attest to. The over-saturation of weak CG, and the idiotic actions and motivations of the one-dimensional characters in a lazy and uninspired script served to simply bruise my intelligence, waste my time and try my patience. While not a perfect movie, I HIGHLY recommend the 1963 original over this bullshit any day of the week. THIS flick’s existence is completely unnecessary, and only serves to try and separate you from your money…at least, it did back in ’99. Kiss my ass, ‘The Haunting’ remake!! You suck!!

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