IN "THE Haunting," Jan De Bont, the director who thrilled us with "Speed" but almost drowned us with "Speed 2," has shifted gears for a spookier ride. You can almost sense the special effects poised in the wings, waiting for that Act III cue. We know the scary stuff is coming. That's what keeps us waiting. Without giving too much away, those effects are fairly impressive. Not amazing. There are a few BIG SCARY MOMENTS that get right in your face and go BOO! But how is the wait? That's important, too.
Most of the time, we think, characters in ghost or horror movies are scarcely worth our attention. After all, they are going to spend most of the movie trying not to get killed, mangled or spooked. Who needs to get to know them? These guys are on the dramatic equivalent of Death Row.
In fact, in many cases, we're happy to see them go.
But the fact is, the more a movie delves into its characters, the more we connect with them. Which makes the possibility of their doom even scarier. In Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," we're as creeped out by what's happening inside Jack Nicholson's head as we are by the haunted house where he is staying.
The story in "The Haunting" takes the character high road, but only with Lili Taylor. And only up to a point. She plays Nell, a lonely single woman who checks into a haunted house thinking she just signed up for a sleep disorder study. Wrong.
This study, which brings her and two others to an over-the-top Addams Family mansion in the Berkshires, is about fear. Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson -- and what in the blue blazes is he doing in a movie like this?) is really conducting research into the knee-jerk fears that rule our lives. I have no idea what he ultimately does with his work, but he claims to be working for humankind.
The patients, including the extroverted Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the odd Luke (Owen Wilson), are unwittingly participating in a psychological suggestion experiment: Put 'em in a scary house, pass along a chilly rumor or two, watch what happens. But when Nell really starts seeing and hearing things around the mansion, everyone starts to realize this house is seriously weird.
The character revelations about Nell aren't that mind-blowing. And the people around her are even less interesting. There is welcome comic relief from Wilson as the goofball-insomniac who gets to utter all the dumb horror-movie lines like, "Let's get out of here!" But Neeson's doctor isn't much more than a walking piece of exposition. And as Theo, a va-va-voom Girl from the City, Zeta-Jones hardly gets a Bette Davis role. Which puts all the more pressure on director De Bont's bag of tricks. Ghostly they are. And Eugenio Zanetti's set design is wonderful. But the movie isn't enough to make people check the shadows when they leave the theater.
THE HAUNTING (PG-13, 113 minutes) -- Contains strong language, sexual innuendo and boo! effects. Area theaters.
CAPTION: Linens and things: Lili Taylor is gripped with terror in "The Haunting."