31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Eleanor, Theo, and Luke decide to take part in a sleep study at a huge mansion they get more than they bargained for when Dr. Marrow tells them of the house’s ghostly past.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Director: Jan de Bont

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Boy, The Haunting sure brings back a lot of memories for me.  It’s 1999 and I’ve finished my first year of college.  I’d been a hardcore movie fan all through high school and middle school but with my growing independence I was able to pick what movies I wanted to take myself to and involve friends with.  The net was still in its relative infancy so to watch trailers outside of a movie theater you had to go on the web and hope your connection was strong enough to keep the preview from buffering forever.  I remember watching the original teaser trailer for The Haunting on TrailerPark.com about a hundred times because it had everything going for it.  Scary movie? Check. Famous director? Check. Popular stars? Check. Prestige producers? Check.  It was all there.  Then the movie came out.

Here’s the original teaser to jog your memory:

Speaking of memories, I remember seeing The Haunting on its opening day and being more than a bit baffled by what was going on with my sure-fire sure thing.  I mean, I had spent $20 to have the glossy double sided theatrical one-sheet poster sent to me so I could display it in my room – I didn’t spend that much money on a turkey, did I?  At the time, I felt I had.  The audiences were laughing at moments meant to be scary and the effects felt like a let-down considering the budget and who was involved.  I was so frustrated I think I saw the movie once more when it came out on DVD but hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half.

We’re in the season of scary movies so I figured now would be better than ever to revisit this remake of Robert Wise’s undisputed 1963 classic.  Also, seeing that the original novel by Shirley Jackson has received another remake in the form of a 10-part Netflix show, I wanted to give this one another look before diving into that new production.  Produced by Steven Spielberg’s (JAWS) studio Dreamworks SKG, aside from a few admittedly cheesy bits and those same iffy effects, I was amazed to discover that The Haunting wasn’t the corny mess I remembered it to be. Not by half.

The same day her sister announces plans to sell the apartment she shared with her recently deceased invalid mother, Nell (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) receives a call inviting her to participate in a sleep study at a secluded mansion.  She’ll be paid well and room and board is provided.  It seems the perfect solution to her dilemma.  Arriving at the ominous Hill House, she’s transfixed by the large estates beauty and ornate interior design.  Joined by bisexual vixen Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects) and all-American dude Luke (Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice), Nell settles in far easier than her fellow test subjects, seemingly unfazed by the house’s nighttime activities which involve strange noises and ghostly apparitions.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and, unbeknownst to the three, the study they are participating in has less to do with their sleep patterns and more to do with their fear reflexes.  He’s chosen Hill House for its storied history of being haunted and before he knows it the ghosts truly do come out to play in increasingly aggressive methods.  Soon, Nell comes to realize there are two sets of ghosts at work in the house.  One group is steering them all to a mystery hidden within while another more malevolent force wants to make sure Nell never leaves.

The first hour or so of The Haunting is a well-constructed vice grip that continues to tighten as the people explore the house and its impressively crafted rooms.  The production design here is out of this world, rich and detailed with no two spaces looking exactly alike.  Much of the huge budget must have been devoted to these playing spaces because while you sort of always know they are sets and not practical rooms in a real mansion the overall illusion is a wonder.  From the large ballroom to a panic inducing revolving room of mirrors, each door opens up to a new feast of the eyes.  Even nearly twenty years later it’s remarkable.

Where the film tends to run off the rails (and was then savaged by critics) is in the visual effects which look one step up from Casper the Friendly Ghost-style floating images. Some of them are downright laughable, especially the wooden cherub faces that decorate Nell’s room.  One moment they are giving you the creeps as their dead eyes bore into you, the next you’re giggling when their expression changes to horror with wide eyes and their mouths forming an “O”.  The final sequence is nearly all CGI and it fails to captivate you, though cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont (Flatliners) does stir up some good camera work during the final act.

Yet for all these problems which do play a part in diminishing the overall effect The Haunting was going for, I still found myself enjoying this re-watch all these years later.  It’s well-intentioned and largely well-made with a great cast (more Lili Taylor in everything, please) and is a masterpiece of set-design.  I went in thinking it would still be that cornball loser I had written it off as being all those years ago but found myself invested in the material and characters.  Sadly, this hasn’t been released on BluRay (why the heck not?) but do yourself a favor and find an HD streaming copy to rent.  It’s worth another look.

Down From the Shelf ~ Flatliners

flatliners

The Facts:

Synopsis: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry

Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin

Director: Joel Schumacher

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There are some movies that bring up a lot of memories when you hear the title and for me just hearing the name Flatliners takes me back to the summer of 1990 when I anxiously awaited the August release of this thriller.  I recall the movie was released when my family was at our cabin and I wouldn’t be able to see it until we returned to the cities but it wasn’t long until my dad took me (hey, I was still underage for an R-rated movie!) to Yorktown 3 for a weeknight showing.

Flatliners has always been a guilty pleasure film for me with its over-the-top concept, stylish direction by Schumacher, and enjoyable performances by a cast that have all gone on to bigger and better things (well, maybe Baldwin excluded).  Revisiting the film again recently, I found that it still packed a nice little punch even if my adult eyes saw many of the cracks that previously went over my head.

Schumacher was a hot director at the time and was still riding the successful high of The Lost Boys three years earlier.  His remake of a French romance (Cousins) was well-received yet Schumacher would change course again to deliver what may seem like a horror film but is really more of a drama-thriller.  Re-teaming with one of his Lost Boys (Sutherland) and nabbing shooting star Roberts (who filmed this before Pretty Woman was released in March of 1990) was a bit of a coup and both actors, along with Bacon, Platt, and Baldwin formed a nice quintet of players as medical students pushing the line between life and death.

Sutherland has always been an interesting actor (much like his father, Donald) and he turns what could have been a one note hero/anti-hero role into a guy with some depth though it’s masked by a false bravado.  Film history has established that doctors have a God-complex and that notion is played up as the medical students each take turns ‘flatlining’ in an after-hours illegal pseudo-study group.  It’s when they are brought back that, unbeknownst to them, they bring something else back with them.

Essentially, the same scenario is replayed over and over again as each of our leads has a different experience in the thin line between heaven and earth.  All of the post-revival happenings are menacing in one way or another but none are of the serial killer variety…though the film’s preview tries to trick you into thinking they are.  Sutherland begins to be terrorized by a boy from his youth, Roberts sees her dead father, and Baldwin’s seedy past comes back to haunt him.  The secret to Bacon’s struggle seems to parallel what Sutherland is going through but a surprisingly emotional twist brings the film its best scene between Bacon and someone from his past. 

This could have been made by any number of directors with any combination of actors but the group that has been assembled strongly delivers a thriller even with its definite B-movie origins.  Elevating it slightly is James Newton Howard’s alarming score and Jan de Bont’s excellent visuals.  The film was shot around Loyola University in Chicago and Schumacher mines the campus and its gothic design for all it’s worth.

Flatliners does fall, um, flat in the middle section but I’ve always responded well to the movie in my numerous viewings of it throughout the years.  Yes, the basic plot stretches the bounds of any logical credibility and in hindsight much of it doesn’t line up but I’m willing to forgive a lot from a film that has its eyes and ears in the right place.  From a visual standpoint alone the film is recommended, and if you’re looking for a slick thriller from the 90’s that isn’t too horribly dated, you can’t miss with this one.