by Adam Troy-Castro
The Haunting. Directed by Jan de Bont. Screenplay by David Self, from the novel by Shirley Jackson. Starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor. 113 minutes. (2 stars)
And here we come that that sharpest of double-edged swords, the revolution in digital effects.
We happen to live in an era where almost anything the filmmaker can imagine can be realized and put on film. The movie’s about a puny scientist who turns into a half-ton green monster? No problem. The hero takes a side-trip to hell and at one point looks out upon a blasted plain where untold millions of condemned sinners writhe in lakes of fire? No problem. A dragon emerges from a sea of cold coins ad chases a hobbit around? No problem.
But what if you’re better off not showing something?
What if the entire impact of a story lies in what might be there, but also might not be?
What if the power lies in what we fear, but are limited to only imagining?
What if the story requires more implication than explication?
In that particular case, the natural impulse to show everything, to make the sights and sounds on screen bigger and more elaborate and more eye-popping and more expensive, can do intolerable damage to the tale that works just fine when left where it belongs, in the shadows.
The missteps made with the remake of The Haunting are far more serious than that; so serious that the movie might have been just as bad if its special effects budget had been cut by two thirds. But that’s certainly the most visible illustration of the real problem, a fundamental contempt for the original story that completely fails to understand why it works.
Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965, was that rarity, a respected mainstream writer whose flirtations with genre were brilliant enough to render her an important figure in the fantastic fields as well. She’s not precisely forgotten nowadays, but has certainly entered the realm of the neglected, but for a very few classic short stories like “The Lottery” and “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” that get reprinted and cooed over once in a while but are no longer quite as ubiquitous as once they were. (Your friendly reviewer remembers when it was pretty much impossible to finish high school without being shown these stories and asked to speculate about their meaning; they were that respected. Today, with reading-for-pleasure a fading skill, there’s so little coverage of fiction in our increasingly no-frills schools that even the divine pleasure of those tales is likely to remain one students will never be asked to discover.)
You could make a rather lengthy list of other Jackson tales that are just as worthwhile, some of them stunning in their quite evocations of genuine human evil. I am forced to content myself with a short one. “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” first published in 1943 and not nearly as dated as one might hope, is about a white suburban mother who in one short conversation of stunning discomfort attempts to condescend to her child’s black best friend, and is driven to rage when the boy innocently won’t allow it. “The Renegade” is about another mother whose dog is threatened with being put down because of its habit of killing chickens, and who discovers the darkness lurking in her own children when they appear more fascinated by various suggested methods of killing the animal than by the prospect of losing it. “Seven Types of Ambiguity” begins as a trifle about the kind of couple who inherit a bookcase and seek only to fill it with books chosen for their value as a decorative objects, and suddenly unveils primitive malice in the form of the husband’s act of petty cruelty toward the helpful young man who innocently indicates that, on his own, he would actually choose to read one.
All great stuff. Brilliant stuff. Stuff with a razor-sharp painful understanding of human nature.
What I’m saying here is that Shirley Jackson was the real goddamned thing, in a manner that so many of us plying the trade these days fail to be, and that if all of this comes as news to you, you need to drag yourself to one of several existing compilations of her short stories and novels with all possible speed.
Some readers stubbornly find the horrific We Have Always Lived In the Castle to be her best novel, and that one’s worth an essay all by itself, but for today’s purposes we must focus on her most famous one, The Haunting of Hill House, which is a prime candidate for best haunted-house novel ever written and which begins and just as meaningfully ends in part with the words, “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Critically, it’s not so much the tale of a house but of a person, Eleanor, an unstable, desperately unhappy woman entering middle age without ever having truly lived. Eleanor has spent her entire adult life as the sister sentenced to the task of caring for a monstrous, invalid mother. Now the mother is gone, Eleanor remains under the thumb of the sister who got to move on and have a life, and she is driven by invitation to the grounds of the notorious Hill House, where she will be the guest of the scientist investigating the paranormal phenomena the sprawling old mansion is famous for.
For Eleanor, suffering more emotional wounds from her years as virtual slave than she dares to admit, it is not just her “first vacation” and the chance at adventure that she calls it; it is her last chance to re-enter human society, make friends, and learn how to be a person. But she may be too damaged to survive the lessons, in this house where the halls reverberate with terrifying noises, and the doors seem to bulge inward from the pressure of something unseen, something angry and seeking to get in.
There are a very few concrete indications that something truly supernatural is going on, but by and large it’s less the tale of a haunted house than of an already-haunted person being driven to madness inside a house, and it’s possible to come away from the story with the impression that Eleanor might not have fared one whit better from spending the weekend in a bright, shiny Holiday Inn. She’s that broken, that tragic.
The brilliance of the 1963 film version, directed by Robert Wise, is that it understands this completely. Filmed in black and white on sets that look antique and opulent but never warm, that capture a place where a sheltered girl like Eleanor can feel both dazzled by all the luxury and frightened by all the surrounding possibility, it is set in the perfect environment for a woman who needed only a little push before going over the edge. Julie Harris, who plays Eleanor, may seem a little overwrought from the very beginning, but that’s the point; she’s a woman pathetically happy at any offer of friendship, raging with anger at any slight, driven to panic at any moment of potential loss…really, a person who has no idea how to act, who is holding herself together with both hands, and thus by far the most vulnerable member of the four-person ghost-busting group. It is no wonder that her reactions to the expedition’s only other woman, the gay Theodora (Claire Bloom), swing wildly from admiration (that might be repressed attraction) to loathing. It’s almost as if she thinks, something’s got to work. That didn’t. Let’s try something else. But somehow, nothing does.
It’s worth noting, while we’re here, that the four main characters are, as in the novel, carefully positioned to represent four possible reactions to the spooky happenings inside the mansion. For the expedition’s leader Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), it’s a purely academic exercise, a chance to catalogue strange phenomena. For Theodora, it’s frightening enough, but nothing near as concrete as her own life back in the big city. For Hill House heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), it’s an exercise in seeing how rich he’ll be when he inherits the house and can sell everything in it. And for poor, broken, lonely, hopeless and guilt-ridden Eleanor, for whom the most frightening room is the musty library that smells of old age (and therefore, her mother), it’s the looming threat of annihilation of both body and soul — a prospect that she soon comes to regard with longing.
This is all inherent in the novel, but the movie knows why it’s there and plays those notes, which is why it’s still frightening today and still a classic. Most importantly, it knows what not to mess with. It knows that the drama of the novel is in Eleanor’s breakdown and doesn’t play up the supernatural elements any more than it has to.
Contrast this with the 1999 version, directed by Jan de Bont, which clearly believes that the original story is not enough. The four main characters do not represent different levels of skepticism, but are simply flattened fear fodder of various sorts. (Even Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Theodora, written far more archly with much more in the way of sexual invitation, seems less an organic inhabitant of the story than an attempt to play up a particular star’s sex appeal.)
In the course of the remake, you will get CGI manifestations like ghastly faces appearing in sheets and draperies, sculptures coming alive and physically attacking people, the spikey sword-like protrusions on Eleanor’s bed extending themselves to stab her mattress and form a cage imprisoning her. You will get Owen Wilson’s decapitation, which is about as emotionally flat a star’s horrible death as you will ever find in a horror film. (It’s just something awful that happens, prompting no response more vivid than, “Oh. Finally. Somebody died.”) You will finally get an actual, tortured explanation for the haunting, involving the trapped souls of murdered children, who Eleanor must turn hero to save.
The movie is visually spectacular, and placed on sets that though hampered by the literalism of full color are nevertheless even creepier than those of the original film, but everything is eventually visible on screen. There is never any ambiguity, never any sense that anything terrible might be lurking in darkness; instead, we get an easily identifiable villain in the form of an evil spirit whose motivations are clearly explained to us once Eleanor figures them out, and whose final assault on the survivors looks a lot like the last-act battles Marvel movie superheroes fight against one cosmic force or another. Jump-scares aside, none of it is at all frightening. Indeed, it’s not even interesting.
Take the most famous moment. The original film features a sequence where Eleanor, driven by her increasing madness, ascends a wrought-iron staircase that cannot bear her weight and that threatens to collapse beneath her. It’s a classic movie scene, which externalizes what is actually going on inside her mind. In the remake, which saw itself as obliged to top that sequence one way or another, the staircase actually does start to fall apart bit by bit and Liam Neeson has to leap to another staircase that parallels it. It’s spectacular enough. But it sits on the screen like soggy bread. It has no resonance. It looks expensive, not scary: which is the movie’s overall problem, written small.
But by far, the greatest diminution, and the fatal blow to the story, is the character of Eleanor herself, here played by Lili Taylor (fourth-billed, which seems unfair since she’s the protagonist, but she’s also the lowest-wattage star). This Eleanor also came off eleven years of caring for an invalid mother, and is also threatened by the sister who wants to take away what chance of a full life she has left, but the difference between the way the first film’s Eleanor is written and the way this one is, is that the first one was pretty much broken and unable to modulate her moods. Julie Harris’s Eleanor was hesitant, desperately sweet, unpredictably nasty, and driven by moments of unexpected despair; she had to force herself to seem normal for short periods. This Eleanor is in charge of herself even when she’s not in charge of her circumstances. She may go crazy for a short period of time before the final act, but that’s a wholly understandable manifestation of panic at some of the horrors she’s experienced. But by the end, she recovers to the point where she’s the one who gets to play superhero, facing down the evil spirit with no weapon greater than the strength of her will. By yelling at it, while her co-stars are pelted with hurled furniture.
That’s paint-by-the-numbers action-movie filmmaking, 1999.
It’s empty because it’s built on a framework that was constructed by an expert, to head in the opposite direction.
And that’s why when, in the original novel and the 1963 movie, when Eleanor dies in what may be suicidal madness and we are once again told that what walks in Hill House “walks alone,” we are left with the upsetting and resonant and memorable mystery of a damned soul whose fate is lost to us; and why the end of the 1999 movie, wherein Eleanor sacrifices herself in much more redemptive circumstances and we get to see her dazzling smile as her spirit leaves her body and ascends toward Heaven, is downright awful. Yuck, dear reader. Absolutely, yuck.
While we’re at it, let’s have a moratorium on stories where the human beings scare away a house’s ghosts by yelling at them that they’re not afraid. It didn’t work when Ray Milland did it in The Uninvited. Decades later, it doesn’t work here. Especially not when Eleanor announces that she’s figured out that she’s a long-lost relative of the evil man who built the place, and scornfully calls the ghost, “Grandpa.”
Let’s just conclude that the word “Grandpa” should have clued somebody in that the screenplay had gone very wrong.
And let’s also suggest that if the offended dead can haunt us, the great Shirley Jackson must now be spending an awful lot of time making furniture shake in Jan de Bont’s house.
In The Remake Chronicles, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro examines the stories that movies keep returning to. This column will alternate with A-TC’s regular video recommendations.