The Haunting (1999)
Tagline: Ghosts with the Most!
Space, 1999. A runaway chain reaction at the Lunar Nuclear Waste Dump has ripped the Moon from its orbit and sent it careening -- whoops. Wrong story.
Hollywood, 1999. A runaway collision of cash and ambition at Dreamworks Studios spawns a $100-million-plus rip-off of 1963's The Haunting.
This had been a longstanding pet project for Steven Spielberg. The original plan was for Spielberg to direct a script by horror-maven Stephen King, but creative differences eventually put the kibosh on that collaboration. For some reason, Spielberg ultimately chose to only associate himself with the feature as an executive producer.
So first Dreamworks needed to find someone else to helm the project. This would seem to be a tall order. By the time he directed the original film, Robert Wise had already made his mark in a variety of genres: horror, film noir, Westerns (including the Western noir Blood on the Moon), romance, war, drama, science fiction, musicals -- you name it, he'd directed an outstanding example of it. Wise, along with his co-director Jerome Robbins, had just won the "Best Director" Oscar the previous year for a little thing called West Side Story.
Yes, Wise would later direct Star Trek: The Movie, but right now we're talking 1963.
Earlier in his career, Wise worked with Orson Welles, editing such minor cinematic efforts as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He cut his directorial teeth under the tutelage of Val Lewton, who produced a distinctive series of horror films for RKO in the 1940s which despite their shoestring budgets are still considered classics of atmosphere and intelligent scripting. Lewton's theory of horror was that people were more afraid of the unknown than things they could see, a philosophy at least partly born out of the studio's penny-pinching, but one which his directors used to unforgettable effect in pictures such as The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and of course Wise's The Body Snatcher.
Wise intended The Haunting to be an homage to Lewton, showing what could be done when you combined his mentor's notion of horror with a respectable budget. Through his brilliant use of sound effects, sets designed to emphasize the claustrophobic atmosphere and unconventional camera angles and movement, he created a masterpiece of psychological horror that consistently shows up on critics' and viewers' lists of the most terrifying films of all time.
Dreamworks' first choice is Wes Craven, which at least makes some sort of sense. Craven, however, bails on the project shortly after filming starts. So who then is your logical second choice? Who else but the director of the immortal Leonard Part 6: Jan de Bont.
But who then to cast for the pivotal role of Eleanor, a lonely, guilt-ridden, psychologically fragile woman who's spent the majority of her adult life caring for the invalid mother from Hell? The 1963 film featured Julie Harris, one of the finest actors of her generation. True to her Actors Studio training, she totally inhabited the character of “Nell”, using her off-camera depression to give her performance depth and sympathy.
So Lili Taylor is tapped for the part. Who, for all I know, may be the reincarnation of Vivian Leigh, but you sure couldn't prove it by this example of her craft. It may have been the script. It may have been the direction. Or it may be that she started gobbling Valium like Pez candies once she realized what she'd gotten herself into.
Oh, and that "what you can't see is even more frightening" bit? C'mon, this is 1999: You've got CGI and wads of cash. The viewer's going to see everything, dammit. And like it!