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.
If you want to know what's wrong with modern horror movies, you don't have to look further than "The Haunting."
It's a film that not only stands the test of time but remains as scary today as when I saw it for the first time in my teens. Not the same can be said for the remake with Liam Neeson, a mishmash of the worst of cheesy plot devices and over-eager special effects.
"The Haunting" is a minor masterpiece easily forgotten in sea of great pictures that make up the impressive oeuvre of director Robert Wise. Wise got his directorial start under Orson Welles shooting additional sequences for "The Magnificent Ambersons," a film he also edited. With titles like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Sound of Music" to his credit, the best you can say of the remake is that it returned the original to the public eye.
Both films are based on the Shirley Jackson novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," which came out in 1959. Of the two, the earlier film stays quite close to the plot of the novel, while the 1999 film veers far off into over-the-top insanity.
The 1999 film obviously THOUGHT it was frightening. It made the most of every kind of special effect you can, a real all but the kitchen sink. The house is even larger than life - an enormous fireplace that's the essence of foreshadowing (something's GOT to happen there...) and a conservatory so lush it looks like a twenty foot carnivorous Venus flytrap would hardly be out of place.
It's the excess that is part of what makes it so tame. Since there's no attempt to anchor the story in reality, you really don't believe anything bad that happens really matters. The other problem is the weakness of the characters, and that weakness is in their excess as well. Lili Taylor, normally a terrific actress, is given the thankless task of being an over-the-top paranoid weakling, while the equally terrific Catherine Zeta-Jones is just as ridiculously superfluous as an oversexed insomniac. Gee, you would think she'd be able to take care of the nyphomania with all the extra time she doesn't sleep.
But it's not scary, not in the way the 1963 film gets under your skin and into your gut. Wise's use of sound and music are masterful. When there are noises beyond a door, they are the kind of noises that take you back to the most frightening night you ever spent in an empty house, or in the dark as a child. You never get a chance to escape from the plight of those trapped in Hill House, which ends up as a character itself, and one of the more terrifying villains in horror history.
Despite the fact that the 1999 version turns the original's supernatural investigation into a cruelly manipulative psychiatric experiment, it's also far less rich in its portrayal of human motivation.
Even Liam Neeson gives a less than subtle performance, with none of the layers in either the character or the script that Richard Johnson brings, although admittedly Johnson has a hell of a lot more to work with - the way he coolly insists that the terrified investigators would not be afraid of the supernatural if only they were as rational as he, and forgets to mention he's marries to Nell (Harris) who is obviously smitten by him.
The 1963 film is also expertly and originally shot; strange angles and a brilliant use of framing and distance from the subjects can make the same room appear either cosy, or claustrophobic, or even loomingly huge. In the 1999 version, you can never shake the knowledge you're watching people on a soundstage. So, without a single drop of blood or typical shock moment, Robert Wise's film manages both more reality and a great deal more terror by using sound and visuals and creepy, creepy music to set the scene.
You may guess that I'm not a big fan of slasher films, especially not of the slasher-porn variety like the later Saw films. It's not that they don't do what they do well, but they're not scary. They give you a certain number of jumps, but that's not the same thing.
Real horror requires a slower pace, more anticipation. A lot of directors seem to have forgotten that it's only until you see the monster that it's actually scary. A shock may cause your heart to stop temporarily, but only suspense can create fear.