In "The Haunting," things go clunk in the night, including the movie.
It's about as scary as the episode of "This Old House" where they taught you how to grout the tile on the bathroom floor of that 19th-century mansion you're turning into a nifty little B&B for the high-end tourist trade.
This old house--originally the subject of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House," and adapted for a 1963 film also called "The Haunting"--was built by a psychotic 19th-century millionaire named Hugh Crane, who made his money exploiting kids in a textile mill. It's being used this time through by a psych professor for an experiment in the dynamics of fear.
He cajoles three disparate types--sexy party girl, Dennis Hopper look-alike and frump--to spend the weekend under the pretext of examining sleep patterns. He plants a few suggestions, and watches them create terror. Except the house is in on the joke and it creates its own terror, and it includes Herr Professor among its victims.
So many blunders, so little time. Let's begin with the casting, and since everybody has other things to do, we'll probably end with it, too. This is without a doubt the most miscast movie of the year. It has big people in parts that are too small for them, and small people in parts that are too big for them. Nobody fits. It's an equal-opportunity career mistake.
First, consider the strange case of Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo, the party gal. Beautiful, dynamic, sexy, funny, smart, she's on the cusp of major stardom after her first two American films, "The Mask of Zorro" and "Entrapment." But who said to her, "Catherine, for your next big role, you've got to be the second banana in a Lili Taylor vehicle"? If an agent said such, I'm hoping he's an ex-agent. If it was a boyfriend, I hope he's now staring off the Santa Monica pier, wondering what to do next.
Both Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson, the other big name, are in roles that fail to show them off effectively or use their big-screen charisma. Meanwhile, the redoubtable Taylor, an excellent actress in many independent films, gets the big, showy heroine's role. She's cast as frumpy Nell, a long-suffering martyr to whom the house is particularly attracted and who turns out to be the inadvertent custodian of its darkest secret; she's the fulcrum on which the plot and the movie turn.
Really, as wonderful as she is, who wants to watch her shriek through the interminable halls of the overdesigned Victorian monstrosity in her little-boy pajamas when Zeta-Jones--one of the most beautiful women on Earth and tarted up as slinky as a dancer in "Cabaret"--is generally out of focus or on the edge of the frame, relegated to wiping Lili's brow and issuing platitudes like "There, there. It's all in your mind."
Neeson is misused twice again as poorly. In heroic, larger-than-life parts, he's heroic and larger than life, a Lochinvar from out of the west. That's why he's a movie star. He hulks, he broods and best of all, he has a great big head. It's gigantic! You could land a plane on it! Here, as a regular-guy professor, that gigantic skull and Igor-the-Goth body is utterly wasted. This is the Regis Philbin role if there ever was one. The lame script gives him no good lines, and he looks befuddled from start to finish; in fact, he barely registers.
While we're venting, let us consider the Owen Wilson problem. Wilson plays the third experimentee, a kid named Luke who wears bad clothes and makes bad wisecracks. Who is he? Why is he in this movie or in movies at all? Okay, so, he looks like Dennis Hopper. Why not just hire Dennis Hopper? He's not doing much these days.
Most of the film is just routine movie hoo-ha, based on the too fashionable computer-generated effects that turn the inanimate into the animate. Thus, hands come out of mirrors or doors, statues come to life, paintings begin to move, beds turn into lobster traps. But nothing builds; it just gets louder.
The director is Jan De Bont, who on the basis of his previous films "Speed," "Speed 2" and "Twister" can be reliably said to know nothing at all about life on this planet. I suppose he knows which lens to use or which kind of lights and he seems comfortable with the extensive computer morphing techniques. But he cannot begin to create the illusion of actual human beings in actual jeopardy. You won't have to keep saying, "It's only a movie." You'll never be able to forget that it's only a movie.
The Haunting (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild scares, collapsing roof beams, mirrors with fists, and some decolletage.
CAPTION: Oh, the horror: Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones get spooked.