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The Haunting (1999)

THE HAUNTING
Rated PG-13
Starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson

CineSight Rating * 1/2

Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Neeson) is conducting an experiment in the dynamics of group fear. And what better place to do that than at a huge old haunted house. The unlucky guinea pigs, who think they're taking part in a sleep disorder study are Nell (Taylor), Theo (Zeta Jones) and Luke (Wilson).

Nell, the real star of the movie, is a shy, lonely young woman who has until now led a sheltered, reclusive life, taking care of an invalid mother. Theo is the exact opposite: a free-wheeling, cosmopolitan New Yorker. And Luke...well, we don't really know much about Luke, except he can't sleep.

At first, Dr. Marrow's experiment seems to go according to plan as he plants the seeds of the house's morbid history, then sits back to watch the results. However, things soon get out of hand as the former "residents" begin showing up, especially picking on quiet little Nell.

Although this sounds like it should be a great premise for a story (and it was when Robert Wise made his version back in 1963), it is sadly lacking. Quite honestly, there are scarier things in my refrigerator than this movie serves up! The real haunting in this movie is done by three ghosts: a bad script by David Self, which is thin on "spooky" and thick on bad dialogue; bad direction by Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed & Speed 2), who demonstrates that he's better at action movies than he is at films involving character development or atmosphere; and the spector of Steven Spielberg, which is evident throughout the second half of the movie as the special effects take over, building to a ridiculously overblown climax.

Rather than allowing the audience's imagination, with some subtle prompting, create the scares themselves, de Bont and Co. insist on trying to manufacture ghosties and ghoulies through numerous computer graphic sequences. Then, to top everything off, they seem to be uncomfortable to finish the story with anything but a happy ending - a nice, neat Hollywood package.

To be fair (maybe even generous), I gave the movie one star for the spectacular set design of the house, and a half star for one genuinely creepy moment in the middle of the movie, when the ghost comes a-knocking on Nell's bedroom door and we're treated to a classic squeaky doorknob routine. If only they had continued in that vein.