When did American movies start reducing characters to mere plot functions? There has always been an element of this in popular art but, since Star Wars (1977), such simple-minded reduction has become the rule.
The device is by now sickeningly familiar to audiences. If you plant a character who is afraid at the start of the film, it is so that he or she will, at the climax, become brave. If they are irresponsible, they will become responsible. Villains, on the other hand, are static creatures who receive a vengeful comeuppance: if they live by fire, they will perish in it, gruesomely.
Director Jan De Bont is seemingly unaware of any narrative craft beyond this basic Spielberg-Lucas code. Speed (1994), his only good film to date, worked because the one-dimensional characterisation meshed perfectly with the intricate action-dynamics of the plot. His subsequent efforts – Twister (1996), Speed 2 (1997) – were frightfully rickety constructions in which the characters may as well have been animated, digital effects.
De Bont's new version of The Haunting (previously filmed by Robert Wise in the '60s) does not improve matters much. At least, as in Speed, the external, physical trappings of the piece are promising. Hill House, where three insomniacs are gathered by the slightly sinister Dr Marrow (Liam Neeson), is a triumph of art direction, a Gothic extravaganza replete with secret panels, rotating platforms and enormous, creaking doors.
David Self's screenplay mishandles key narrative ingredients. Marrow, for instance, does virtually nothing to hide the documentation of his deception from Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Nell (Lili Taylor) and Luke (Owen Wilson). More seriously, the film fumbles the primal, uncanny ambiguity of such a tale: are the frightening events happening everywhere Marrow's doing or an unfriendly ghost's?
As in horror classics from The Old Dark House (1932) to The Shining (1980), everything depends on the slowly unfolded backstory – a grim, historic tale that slowly begins to absorb the present-day characters. The fact that this backstory remains a little murky works to The Haunting's advantage – as does the fact that De Bont withholds most of the supposedly meaningful stuff (about families, heaven and hell) until the denouement.
But this is no Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento. And, despite its occasional, desperate lunge towards camp humour, it's not even as captivating as a haunted-house parody by Bob Hope.
© Adrian Martin September 1999