Let us start off by apologizing for our spoiler heavy title. That said, “The Haunting” was released 17 years ago today and has been a part of our collective horror consciousness for approximately 6,205 days (not counting leap years) so – I don’t think spoilers are really a relevant complaint at this point. Okay? Okay. 1999 was a heavy year for horror. We saw the reemergence of the found footage film with “The Blair Witch Project” which subsequently became one of the only types of horror films we saw for the better part of a decade, we had the return of killer animals with flicks like “Deep Blue Sea”, “Lake Placid”, and “Shark Attack”, and Brendan Fraser took moviegoers everywhere deep into the tomb of Imhotep and defended all of us from the return of the 10 plagues of Egypt with Universal Studios’ “The Mummy.”
It was a big year.
1999 also brought with it the return of haunted house movies. “The Haunting of Hell House” and “House on Haunted Hill” both returned to the screen and were (not surprisingly) panned by critics almost unanimously. However, the release of Jan de Bont’s remake of the 1963 classic “The Haunting” remains one that is still heavily debated over. “The Haunting” first hit cinema screens in the United States on July 20th of 1999. It tells the story of Eleanor “Call me Nell” Lance (Lili Taylor) who, after caring for her invalid mother for 11 years, finds herself without a place to stay and with no money to speak of. Enter Dr. David Marrow (played by a pre-“Taken” Liam Neeson), who calls Nell to invite her to participate in an “insomnia study” at Hill House, a secluded mansion in western Massachusetts. Upon arrival, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Dudley the house’s caretakers who appear to have stepped right off the canvas of “American Gothic” specifically to creep out anyone who dares step foot onto the premises of Hill House. Seriously, it’s like a geriatric Riff Raff and Magenta but without the musical talent. We get it, you’re spooky. Luke Anderson (played by the broken nosed, charming Owen Wilson) and Theodora (played by Catherine Zeta Jones’ Hair), the other two participants in the study, eventually arrive along with Dr. Marrow’s two research assistants and with that the doors lock and the experiment begins. Unbeknownst to our humble participants, the “experiment” is not in regards to insomnia, but actually an attempt to study the psychological response to fear, hence the spooky house and
Rocky Horror caretakers.
As night falls, the gates to Hill House are chained and no one is allowed out until morning. Things progress; spookiness occurs, people die, Owen Wilson loses his head, Liam Neeson is revealed to be a hack, and some of the best CGI ghosts to yet appear on film (Can we talk about those moving statues, though? Gorgeous.) scare the living hell out of Nell, who eventually realizes she’s distantly related to the now-deceased Master of Hill House, Hugh Crain. She takes it upon herself to rescue the trapped spirits of the many children who died in the home (we won’t spoil how they died, it was fun re-discovering that bit) and does so by assisting them in dragging the evil Master Crain’s soul to Hell. Where he belongs, the dude was kind of – really, really terrible. The trauma on Nell from the spiritual scuffle proves fatal, but her spirit goes upwards and out to the afterlife along with the spirits of the children she freed. As the film closes, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones’ Hair wait outside the now-cleansed Hill House for the caretakers to arrive.
In 1999, “The Haunting” was almost universally panned by critics. Many felt as though the film’s weak script made things extremely uneven and that a lot of the performances were weak, making the entire thing feel clunky and awkward. That said, the film did moderately well at the box office; grossing approximately 33 Million over its’ opening weekend. Despite the less-than- favorable reviews, “The Haunting” has become highly regarded for its’ sophisticated CGI and special effects. The production design, as far as we’re concerned, was revolutionary. It was one of the first horror films to adopt CGI in its’ full capacity and paved the way for a lot of the awesome things we see on screen today. The ghostly apparitions and living statues were fairly ahead of their time and it’s not hard to find current productions that have benefitted from the time and effort put into creating the spectral beings that lurk through the winding halls of Hill House.
So, here’s to you 1999 and “The Haunting.” We raise our Gothic goblets full of, surely overpriced, wine and thank you for making our deep seated fear of ghosts and full-bodied apparitions a startling reality. We also thank you for Catherine Zeta Jones’ stylist, who made that hair shine like the ebony diamond that it is.
Bottoms up. Sleep tight.