Chills and Spills

Inspired amateurism and shoestring ingenuity may not be to every taste, but anyone who thinks The Blair Witch Project has been oversold should take a gander at this summer's big Hollywood psychological-horror flick. The Haunting, DreamWorks's high-powered version of the Shirley Jackson ghost story that was first filmed back in 1963, means to be something more than a loud and gory slimefest. But its anemic chills are only further diminished by the megamillions projected on the screen. The Haunting's setup is the same as in its earlier incarnations, albeit less resonant and more irrational. An enthusiastic if unscrupulous professor engaged in some dubious form of research gathers together three neurotics in an isolated, spooky old New England mansion. The scientist is openly ghost-hunting; the ensuing supernatural occurrences are precipitated by the presence of his most disturbed subject, the childlike, lonely, and sexually repressed Nell, a no-longer-young woman recently set free after a decade caring for her demanding invalid mother.

It's a premise straight from Psych 101, but the 1963 movie (directed by Val Lewton alum Robert Wise) was a flop. Indeed, reporting on the audience hostility she observed during its release, Pauline Kael cited The Haunting as an example of a perfectly understandable movie that sailed over the heads of the new TV-addled audience. Be that as it may, director Jan De Bont and scriptwriter David Self have made certain that the DreamWorks remake will provide nothing whatsoever to think about. Whereas the supporting neurotic, Theo, was a deviously clairvoyant lesbian in the Wise film, she's played here by dishy Catherine Zeta-Jones as a vacuous clotheshorse; where Julie Harris's unloved and unlovable Nell was filled with rage, Lili Taylor is a spunky, big-hearted eccentric. (If Owen Wilson's bland third subject is an improvement, it's mainly because the part was played by teen idiot Russ Tamblyn in 1963.)

The single character with any complexity is the professor (despite being played by Liam Neeson in action enigma mode). Rather than chasing poltergeists, he's studying the human panic reflex under cover of gathering data on insomnia. The premise is less ridiculous than it is weirdly self-reflexive: Having planted what he terms an "experimental 'haunting' fiction" in the minds of his suggestible subjects, he has set himself up as a surrogate filmmaker—attempting to produce "group fear and hysteria."

Details

The Haunting
Directed by Jan De Bont
Written by David Self
From the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A DreamWorks release

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Directed by Michael Patrick Jann
Written by Lona Williams
A New Line Cinema release

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Would that it were so. De Bont's two previous features—Speedand Twister—were elaborately visceral neo-disaster flicks. But The Haunting (remaking a movie that Steven Spielberg has cited as a favorite) is more ambitious. For much of the film, the digital effects are relatively restrained. Just as Nell is the focal point of much mild spookiness (spirits calling, chains rattling), so most of the directorial energy seems displaced onto the hugeness of the set. The haunted house is played by the monumentally gingerbread Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, En gland, and the movie doesn't lack for swooping shots of the grounds— De Bont is far better at posh camera maneuvers than scene construction.

Flagging the movie's high aspirations, the house seems to be a museum bigger than the Met. The interiors are staggering: Nell and Theo's adjoining bedrooms seem a full football field apart (thus preventing De Bont from reusing the memorable Wise image of the two terrified women huddled together in bed). In addition to the requisite glaring portraits and malevolent Chippendale, the place features lysergically patterned floors, a small army of wide-eyed lacquered cherubs, a hall of mirrors within a built-in merry-go-round, and a full-sized pastiche of Rodin's Gates of Hell.

Every cornice is a dagger and each chandelier an invitation to an impaling, but that's as far as the power of suggestion goes. Once she starts to hallucinate, Nell finds a literal skeleton in the closet—rather than the traumas buried in her psyche. Still, Taylor has her best scenes ranting at her costars from the incomprehensible depths of her soon-to-be-universalized bad trip. The Haunting could almost have succeeded as a study in derangement had a greater distinction been made between Nell's consciousness and that of the other characters. As it is, the perspective shifts wildly from moment to moment.

The climactic Walpurgisnacht is so absurd that one might well miss the way in which the downbeat closer has been spun for Spielbergian uplift. The mansion turns out to have been built by the 19th-century king of New England's satanic mills and haunted by the ghosts of his abused child laborers. Hard to know just how Nell's sacrifice will help but, at least, "it's about family," as she declaims, having seen the light.

  

Even sillier than it is cynical, Drop Dead Gorgeous is a tiresome tale of a small-town competition that makes Election's blunderbuss satire seem masterful in its subtlety. Michael Patrick Jann's mock-documentary about a teen beauty pageant, set in a Minnesota community hitherto distinguished as the home of the Oldest Living Lutheran, is directed for maximum derision. Drifting in and out of concept, even as it strands a promising cast on a tundra of cheerily chirped you betchas, the movie focuses on the class conflict between two contestants—smug rich girl Denise Richards, daughter of past winner and current promoter Kirstie Alley, and Kirsten Dunst, a trailer-park rose who idolizes Diane Sawyer and works after school in the local morgue.

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