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The Haunting

The horror! The horror!

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Jan de Bont

Written by David Self, based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

With Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson

The Haunting is not your usual garden-variety bad movie: it does not merely cause the viewers cringe in pain and abject anguish at the sheer awfulness of it; no, it squarely lands into the “so bad it’s good” area, being not merely terrible but laughably so. The fact that this, ostensibly a horror movie, is not horrifying for a second is not really relevant, for its ineptitude is much broader in scope. It shows the total misunderstanding of even basic facts of filmmaking and storytelling -- and the result is wretched, from its very first to its very last minute.

The story centers on four people staying at an old castle (modestly called Hill House, but really bigger and more elaborate than some residences of kings of small European countries). The Professor (Liam Neeson) is ostensibly doing a study on insomnia, so he invites the Neurotic (Lili Taylor), the Hottie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and the Annoying Guy (Owen Wilson) to stay there for a few nights. But the real aim of his research is human reaction to fear, so he tries to scare the subjects of his experiment by telling them the house is haunted. Ain’t he in for a surprise when they discover the house really is haunted! And it’s haunted by something truly scary, something that puts the fear into even the most courageous souls: runaway cheesy computer generated effects. The horror, the horror.

It’s also haunted by the most contrived progression of events (I could never call it “plot”), and characters’ behavior which makes no sense whatsoever. And I’m not talking about the usual horror movie clichÉs (“The ax-wielding killer is somewhere around! I’ll search the attic; you, Bob, take the garage; and you, Jennifer, strip to your underwear and look around in the basement!”). No, the characters of The Haunting display no human behavioral traits whatsoever.

A pop quiz. You wake up and see the ceiling of the room starting to lower slowly. You a) run out of the room; b) scream loudly; c) pinch yourself in the arm to make sure you’re really awake; d) none of the above: you open your eyes and your mouth as wide as possible, and stare at the ceiling for several excruciating minutes while it continues its descent.

There’s also the dialogue, the most laughable dialogue I’ve ever heard to be uttered in a movie.

Exhibit A: after something like three-minute sequence of a spiral staircase collapsing, we cut to the face of an onlooker, who, with eyes wide open, exclaims: “A staircase is collapsing!”

Exhibit B: during the climactic confrontation with the big bad computer generated ghost, the heroine exclaims: “This is about family!”

One of the most astonishing things about The Haunting is its pedigree, which is considerable. Director Jan de Bont helmed Speed (well, OK, he also helmed Speed 2). Both Neeson and Zeta-Jones are usually good actors; Taylor is an icon of independent cinema; and Owen Wilson -- may the gods have mercy on his soul! -- co-wrote the screenplay for Rushmore. Almost none of that is visible here, with Taylor and Wilson being consistently annoying, and Zeta-Jones and Neeson relegated to totally superfluous supporting roles (although, to be frank, all the roles in this movie are quite superfluous). At least Neeson doesn’t seem to be stiff; in his first two minutes on screen he gets to act more than he did in all of The Phantom Menace, but since his performance goes nowhere, this hardly matters.

The one and only bright thing about The Haunting, and, as a matter of fact, the only thing that saved it from squarely hitting the bottom of the barrel is the production design by Eugenio Zanetti (What Dreams May Come), which is truly amazing. The huge, sprawling house interiors are a marvel to look at, and there is a lot of promise in what might happen later in this forebodingly beautiful environment. None of these promises are kept, of course; yet, the house itself is still nice to look at.

I’ll be greatly surprised if The Haunting will be dethroned from its proud position as the Worst Movie of the Year. Right now, the title is its to lose.