Some Houses Are Born Bad
A feast for the eyes and ears, The Haunting, combines the talents of director Jan De Bont with the special effects wizardry of Phil Tippett and the production design moxie of Eugenio Zanetti into one wicked brew.
DreamWorks' 1999 release of the haunting is a loose adaptation of the 1963 film by the same name. While not billed as such, it is indeed based on the same book as the former—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Loose is definitely the appropriate word, as it takes the story in a completely different path than the original. Plot-wise that may not have necessarily been a bad thing. But from a story telling perspective, this new release clearly fell down more than once and was never really able to get back up again.
I am really, really conflicted about this disc. It looks wonderful! The Haunting is truly a visual feast for the eyes. If Zanetti isn't nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film, I will be terrifically disappointed. The sets were magnificent. And huge! They were actually built in the hangar that once housed Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. I mean they were big! And the house that was used for exterior shots was perfect. I'm not sure a scarier bigger house exists on the planet than Harlaxton Manor over in England. I spent half the movie with my jaw on the floor over that house, with my significant other claiming the sweeping shots of the exterior "had to be a model." We weren't sure anything that big actually existed, and even if it did, how in the world would Jan de Bont and team get permission to film there. But they did—and it is wonderful.
The house plays a key role in the film too, as Phil Tippett and his team of visual effects maestros actually brings the house to life. This is some of the best special effects work I have ever seen. In fact, due to the less than stellar acting work in The Haunting, one could convincingly argue that the house plays a key role in the film. I have run out of superlatives to describe what I saw on screen, but that is both good and bad.
The flip side is that the film just isn't scary. Much in the same way that I expected a lot more from universal's recent re-release of The Mummy I expected so much more from The Haunting. In fact, if you are a fan of The Mummy, then you ought to rush right out and add this film to your collection, as I would easily place it in the same realm of films. They are at least loose cousins if not pure blood brothers.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and is visually perfect. Aside from a few very small trouble spots from digital overenhancement, everything is just right. Even to point out these trouble spot is really nitpicking, as the transfer is so near perfect that it came very close to knocking off Blade as my reference disc of choice for visuals. But I did notice them all the same, but they didn't even take up with whole screen. In fact, if I may attempt an analogy, it would be like looking at the famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte" by pointillist Georges Seurat and exclaiming that the color of one of the dogs is off. It was that small. The colors were very deep and saturated. Edges were crisp and clean. The disc even handled the few brightly lit outdoor scenes very well, without any of the blooming or softness usually associated with them. Fleshtones are well rendered, to the point of perfection, really. The disc even handles the smoky apparitions very well, which is a rarity even in these advanced days of DVD authoring. Everything about this disc screams visually stunning.
The audio track is something on still another level. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is apparently also encoded for THX EX, which would give a matrixed surround center channel—similar to the way Dolby ProLogic is a matrixed surround scheme, provided you have the setup for it. This disc is one of the first to offer this option. I guess it's nice to make this available for those who want it, but with so few consumers even being Dolby Digital equipped at this point, I can't imagine this being a driving force in home theater for quite some time. That said, the disc offers both a 5.1 and 2.0 track in English, both of which sound awesome. The heavy use of surrounds and LFE channels clearly make this a reference quality audio disc, but never at expense of the dialogue track, which is a pleasure. So many discs today pump up the effects channels to the detriment of the dialogue track, but not this one—thankfully.
The disc includes a behind the scenes feature, two trailers for the film, production notes and talent bios. I would have liked to hear a commentary track, but I'm sure it was a challenge to schedule such involvement from the talents involved. Many have probably moved on to other projects or just were not interested in spending the time to do one. That's okay, I guess. With the great work DreamWorks has been doing with so many of their discs, it really is hard to complain. I'm sure they did their best to get one. Besides, you can't please all the people all the time—right?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As good as this disc is in terms of audio and visual quality, there are certainly a few problems as well. As stated above, the story is very weak in spots, as it meanders about a bit. Frankly, for all those in your face special effects, which admittedly are fascinating to watch, the film just isn't very scary. There is very little suspense that gets built up over the 113 minute running time. I have this feeling that many filmmakers are leaning on special effects as a bit of a crutch these days, assuming people will want to go see their films simply for the "wow" factor of these effects. This may be true for the general public, but not for many of us who are into home theater. I could be wrong. As I said, this film reminds me a lot of The Mummy from that perspective. The effects are wondrous and I was truly amazed at their quality, and their seamless integration into the film, but at the expense of telling the story, which is never a good thing.
The acting isn't too hot either. Lili Taylor is actually quite good as the film's centerpiece and tries her best to hold the ensemble together. Owen Wilson also does a fine job as a bit of a wisecracking side character. But the two top billed actors, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, are quite stiff and do little to actually build a character throughout the film. I liked Neeson in so many of his previous roles, but I was rather disappointed at his work here. This is my first experience with Zeta-Jones, so I cannot really comment further, other than to say it really doesn't get me too excited to run out and give her a second try.
The Haunting is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. If you like this type of film, then by all means, RUN to your local store or keyboard and grab a copy of this disc when it is available. If, for instance, you enjoyed The Mummy, then you will undoubtedly enjoy this film and this disc. Moreover, if you are the type that only buys discs that can show off your Home Theater, then this will fit right in to your collection.
Everyone associated with this film and disc is acquitted except for Jan de Bont, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. DreamWorks has done a smashup job bringing this roller-coaster ride to DVD. Too bad it wasn't a more compelling film.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Behind-The-Scenes Feature
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean McGinnis; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.