The Haunting (1999)
Directed by Jan de Bont
Written by David Self, Shirley Jackson
Stars Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor
Run Time: 1 Hour, 53 Minutes
Nell and her sister Jane are fighting over their inheritance. Nell has been taking care of her sick mother for over a decade, and now she’s going to be thrown out on the street. Jane offers Nell a job as their maid and babysitter. She gets a call about becoming a research subject for $900 a week.
Dr. David Marrow is doing a research study, and he’s looking for “suggestible” people for his trip to Hill House. His boss doesn’t think he can do his research credibly or ethically.
Nell arrives at the huge old mansion, and Mr. Dudley unlocks the gate for her. No one opens the door, so she goes inside and finds Mrs. Dudley. We get a feel for the place as they walk to Nell’s room. The place is insanely large and well furnished, and Nell notices a giant, creepy painting of Hugh Crain. Mrs. Dudley explains that these will be the first visitors Hill House has had since Mr. Crain died.
Theo arrives, and she has her own baggage. Mrs. Dudley goes through the same spiel about dinner time. They get along fine, and the compete to see who is more messed up. Then they find a fun-house room with mirrors and a moving floor. They literally run into Luke Sanderson, and then we meet David Marrow and his assistants Mary and Todd. Mary immediately gets creeped out by the place.
David explains that he’s doing a research study on “bad sleepers” and insomnia. That’s not true, but it’s the cover story for what he really wants. David explains the story of Hugh Crain, who built the house but really just wanted children. Unfortunately, all his children died in childbirth. He kept on building and building, and people still say they can hear the sounds of children at night. Crain’s wife killed herself.
As Mary explains that there is evil in the house, a piano string tightens and snaps all by itself and hits her in the eye. Todd takes her in the car, and they take the key to the big gate. They never come back.
Night falls, and they all go about their business. Nell sees the faces on her fireplace are all looking at her. Luke walks the halls with insomnia. Nell wakes up to a loud pounding noise on the walls and hears Theo calling for her in the next room. She runs over there, and now they both hear the sounds. Something is trying very hard to get into their room. It gets cold and they can see their breaths in the bedroom air. Luke comes in, but it’s gone by this point. They eventually go back to bed. Little CGI faces crawl through the bedsheets to scare Eleanor. They say, “find us!”
In the morning, Luke has come to the conclusion that David hasn’t told them the whole truth about why they are there. Nell sees something in the fireplace, but again, no one else sees it. Soon after, they find “Welcome home, Eleanor” painted on the wall.
The next night, Nell finds red footprints in her bedroom. She follows them to a secret room with a ledger. It’s Crain’s secret study, and his ledger is full of names of children who died. What happened to them? The next day, Nell finds David’s tape recorder and figures out why they’re really here. She then gets a ghostly hint from Carolyn, Crain’s second wife, to look in the fireplace again, and this time, she finds the bones of children. Nell tells everyone this, and David comes clean about the nature of the scientific study.
They put the distraught Nell to bed and turn out all the lights, always a good idea. The room comes alive and attacks her. She follows the baby ghosts up the rickety old spiral staircase in the greenhouse. David slowly goes up behind her, but it keeps falling apart every time he takes another step. They finally get her down and put her to bed—until her bed tries to kill her. They all see the thing in her room this time, so any doubt is removed.
It soon comes up that David never called Nell. He never spoke to her before she arrived in the house. Who invited her in the first place? Luke gets in the car and tries to ram the front gate, but that goes badly for him. Nell hears the children inside calling for her to return. Luke gets out of the car, and everyone goes back into the house.
Nell explains that Carolyn was her great-great grandmother, and the children need her to take care of them. As long as she’s here, Crain can’t hurt them anymore. Luke smashes the painting of Crain, and the house pulls him into the fireplace, where the giant lion beheads him. Nell then fights off a stone gargoyle
Finally, Mr. Crain himself makes an appearance, but Nell refuses to be afraid of him. She gives him a piece of her mind and threatens to stop him now. The statue of Purgatory comes to life and sends Crain to Hell. We then see all the children’s spirits leave and thank Eleanor on the way out. Of course, she dies as well.
In the morning, the Dudleys let David and Theo out.
We watched this one immediately after the 1963 version to compare the differences, so we’ll look at those first.
We get told right up-front what Nell has been doing with her life and it’s clear what her choices are and her situation is. In the first movie, Nell seemed eccentric, flighty, and maybe a little crazy. She seems much more normal and relatable in this one.
In the original film, we see literally nothing spooky. It’s all noises and atmosphere. This film has some dated CGI to help our imaginations work. Toward the end, the CGI and creatures get a little excessive.
With the mystery of the missing children, this film also has much more of a plot to it than simply, “The house wants me.” There’s also no mention of Abigail and the negligent caretaker, it all focuses on evil Mr. Crain. Most surprisingly, there was absolutely none of the inner dialogue that went on in the original film – Nell had quite a bit of that the first time around.
This was a big-budget remake with an A-list cast. The set is outrageously overblown, probably the nicest and most elaborate haunted house ever. As Mrs. Dudley says, “it’s a lot to dust.” There’s a lot of running around and CGI ghosts and things here, so it’s a lot more exciting, but less cerebral, than the original.
The scenery and sets are worth the watch, but the story in the original was probably more uniquely told.