Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
"The Haunting of Hill House" first gave kids nightmares when it was published by San Francisco writer Shirley Jackson in' 1959 and it scared them all over again in 1963, when it was first filmed in black-and-white by Robert Wise as "The Haunting." Can Jan De Bont's Technicolor re-make still send them running for cover in 1999? With the great Lili Taylor at the core of the new film, it just might. Taylor, who has been making independent films since her 1988 debut at 21 in "Mystic Pizza," has the same evocative power on her generation as the young Julie Harris exerted on movie audiences of the fifties and sixties. Taylor IS Eleanor, whose whole life has always been drab and dreary, devoted to the care of her demanding invalid Mother. When Mother dies, Eleanor is ready for an adventure and is basically shoved into one by her nasty relatives Jane and Lou (Virginia Madsen and Tom Irwin in a one sequence bit). Unethical Dr. Marrow (played in saintly fashion by Liam Neeson) is recruiting suggestible candidates for a study on fear, only he tells them he's conducting sleep research on volunteers with a history of insomnia.
Eleanor qualifies and so do a fashionable bisexual named Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and goofy Luke Sanderson (Owen Wilson). All four are seduced by the eccentricity and scope of Hill House, which, in real life is Harlaxton College, a 19th century British manor. Dr. Marrow tells the women one thing about Hill House and adds a few tantalizing details when he talks with Luke. The horrors, most of them with Eleanor as a target, begin the very first night and they quickly escalate in intensity. Dr. Marrow begins to feel like the unethical blunderer that he is, Theo and Luke are furious with him for same and only Eleanor takes Hill House on its own creepy terms. Taylor is absolutely mesmerizing, as admirers of her indie work in films like "I Shot Andy Warhol" already know. In both this version and in the original, I found myself wondering what it was like for good actresses like Claire Bloom and Zeta-Jones to work opposite great actresses like Harris and Taylor. Bruce Dern and Marion Seldes are appropriately weird and strange as Mr.& Mrs. Dudley, Hill House's caretakers.
The house's sets and special effects are, of course, far more lavish this time around, and only one computerized effect a cold spot of the house) drew attention to itself as a digitized fake. Production Designer Eugenia Zanetti & Visual Effects Supervisors Phil Tippett & Craig Hayes each deserve a nomination at least for their efforts here and director De Bont has clearly redeemed himself after the spectacular failure of "Speed 2." Zeta- Jones fans may go home wanting to duplicate her striking wardrobe by Ellen Mirojnick, but when they drift off to sleep, it's Lili Taylor's face that will haunt them in the middle of the night in the dark.
© 1999 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 7/21/99
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