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by: Michael Dequina

I never thought I'd see the day when Lili Taylor would carry a big-budget, big studio summer blockbuster wannabe. But here she is, the indie queen herself, playing the lead in $80-million-plus The Haunting. One could be led to believe that Taylor's surprising involvement would indicate a popcorn film that manages to blend the best of the worlds of art and commerce. Alas, this all-flash, no-substance--and no scare--thriller is a textbook example of the soulless, money-burning Hollywood hype products she had so valiantly rebelled against throughout her entire career. Hope you enjoyed cashing that paycheck, Miss Taylor.

I suppose I could see why The Haunting attracted the attention of talent such as Taylor and co-stars Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, which had been memorably adapted to screen, also under the title The Haunting, by Robert Wise in 1963. Also, the man at the helm is Jan DeBont, who made his directorial debut with one of the best and most exciting action thrillers of the decade, 1994's Speed.

However, The Haunting continues a disturbing trend that has been evidenced in DeBont's work since Speed: an emphasis on effects and pyrotechnics over story. He was able to get by with this approach on the utterly-brainless-but-fun Twister, but it did not serve him well on the misbegotten Speed 2: Cruise Control and is certainly the case here. Granted, the storyline of The Haunting does play like a countdown to the inevitable grand effects sequences. Eleanor (Taylor), Theo (Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson) agree to stay in the large, isolated old New England mansion named Hill House for an insomnia study conducted by psychologist Dr. David Marrow (Neeson). Dr. Marrow, of course, has a hidden agenda--it is not insomnia but fear he is interested in, and the creaky, creepy Hill House provides the perfect venue. But he and his three test subjects--especially the frightened but fascinated Eleanor--get more than they bargained for when things do more than go bump in the night.

This is when the special effects kick in and the film should kick into gear. The physical effects of the living sets, the digital effects used for the various ghosts, and the sound effects that lends every bump its boom are of the highest technical order. But all the polish can't gloss over one cold, hard fact: none of what the effects bring to life is the slightest bit scary. The eye candy is especially enticing, but audiences are more likely to be in awe of their visual splendor than scream in fright. With no jolts nor a sense of a haunting atmosphere, the lapses in logic in rookie screenwriter David Self's hole-ridden script are all the more clear.

As safe as this trip in a haunted house is, there was one moment during The Haunting where many the screening audience did jump in their seats (some even screamed). Did it have anything to do with one of those digital phantoms? No. The "living" set design? No. What caught viewers so off guard was... a basic prop skeleton, no more special than any one you can see in a typical B-movie. Isn't it nice to know that these big Hollywood budgets are being used so effectively?

RATING: ** (out of *****)


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