Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rococo Gold: THE HAUNTING remake is better than the original - yeah, I said it.

Everyone heaped so much abuse on Jan de Bont's 1999 HAUNTING remake when it first came out that I held off seeing it... until now... and boy am I mad. I could have been watching this film every day for years! Is it terrible? Naturally. But it's my kind of terrible. It's a terrible America needs on a cold rainy December Monday night after work when your feet hurt and the heater's spewing out weird mold smells and the cat's harassing you for more food and you just fed her. You need to take a shower but the thought of touching a faucet handle and feeling cold water while waiting for it to turn hot, hurts. Just the thought is as if imagining being dragged down an asphalt driveway in your shorts,  or looking down from a great height with no railing. The very thought of touching cold water or a cold metal handle burns the inside of your parchment skin like the thought of no junk burns the junkie. On and on, with no end in sight! Cat - feet - cold - thoughts like knives! Cats - feet... knives...

Rain... Monday... December cold...the journey home is dark and damp. The apartment is filthy. Why bother cleaning when it will just be filthy again?

But then THE HAUNTING emanates from Netflix Streaming like a warm absolving specter... not the original, but that maligned 1999 remake --it wipes all cares away in a wash of dark red satins and dark-eyed women.

Sure the CGI ghost aspect is super uncool today, that uncanny valley melting while staring us in the face like THE POLAR EXPRESS took a torrid zone detour. But in 1999 it had only just turned uncool. The idea of the uncanny valley was still forming -  no one quite knew why they were so skeeved out. So play along. Act surprised. Let's not alarm the children.

For me the tacky CGI ghosts are just part of the film's goofy rococo conceptual design. The production design for this magnificently colored and decorated house is so over the top, so immense, you feel like you've wafted through these tortured cavernous sets in dark dreams, the kind where part of you is thinking "it's 2PM, Erich, get up already" while the rest of you indulges in the heavy REMs. Such dark and well-lit purple-gold beauty meshed up against cutesy poo gold cherubs makes it all seem as if the ghosts are Disney ride sculptures come to life, as fake in their fakeness as the clay Orson Welles in HEAVENLY CREATURES (left). Let's remember, this film is from the 90s, so this HAUNTING is hoping to one day be made into ride. It's supposed to be fun, more like the original HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL than the pretentious Robert Wise original. It's not supposed to be a turgid white elephant downer with everyone snapping at one another and mouthing terrible pun-choked dismissive analysis that feels it has to justify itself to its imagined skeptics a dozen times a page. It has no ambition to be taken seriously in modern psychiatric circles. It's just trying to make it to 90 minutes, in peace, so it can go home, like everybody else.

So I guess that's what I mean by "better." I can admire the 1963 HAUNTING only from behind a velvet rope, while the remake invites me to walk around like SLEEP NO MORE through its beautiful sprawling, dark-colored, sprawling, uniquely designed, burgundy and blood sets, to get close up as the attractive dark-colored clotheshorse cast (the two girls anyway) to try and play off each other in cute bits of dark little business (and the men smirk and phone it in).

And during the prolonged climax Lili Taylor clobbers a CGI statue-come-to-life griffin with a shovel.

There's no comparison.

In the end, probably, it's taste preference: if you need artsy justification for pouring money and talent into a ghost story drain then you've already lost me. If the entire dark look of the film seems created to bring out the dusky lushness of Catherine Zeta Jones lip rouge then you have me, presuming I'm too beat by the cat-feet-heater-mold-Monday misery to resist. Winning acclaim and Michael Douglas would, you think, lift the Zeta above a desire to appear in throw pillow matinee nonsense like this, but the Zeta was made for just such nonsense and she knows it. Slinking around in her body like a luxuriant demon on a 24-hour pass (a demon who was expecting to rent some tired old lady and instead got this dope, vivacious body at the same price), she's so hot it's no wonder an old reprobate like Michael Douglas would drop whatever stone he was romancing to carry her away like an ADVENTURE TIME Ice King. She's a great one for interacting with good actors, a good mirror able to rise to any romantic opposite's heights or lows, but she's also fun riding up on mediocre scene partners, like when she connects with Owen Wilson--usually likable but here almost as insufferable as Russ Tamblyn--imitating his pronunciation, her eyes rolling at his self-adoring twinkle. With sweet and sacred Lili Taylor, though, she connects in a kind of patient slow-burn lesbian flirtation that doesn't have to go anywhere to be super foxy.

The women in both films are their best assets. The men the worst. As the 1963 original film's sole heir to the estate, Russ Tamblyn is such a one-note, "hey doc, come off it, ah? I mean (blah blah) but I never (blah blah) and all that jazz"-skeptic greedhead he can almost swamp the works, unless I'm in the kind of mood I can forgive him (for he is short and knows not what he does).
Wilson's character avoids that (he thinks he's there for an insomnia study) and seems mainly trying to fit in, and maybe hook up with Zeta. Well, who wouldn't? She sees right through Wilson's smug schtick but she doesn't snap his head off, treating him instead like her younger brother's puberty-hitting friend who keeps trying to find excuses to hang out in her room. I like when she's talking about Three AM making her feel like a genius, bringing about a general discussion of thoughts and inspiration, while all Owen can do is rant about the infomercials he watches. ("That's why god created barbiturates, honey" she tells him). But god also created the VCR, Owen. Watch goddamn WC Fields movies and learn how to drink like a man! You'll sleep like a bitch.

But the script and acting are fascinating throughout the remake as you get the idea these people really are meeting for the first time and all trying to impress each other, lying and inflating their egos, less secure and declamatory than in the original. I felt Manny Farber termites in some of the group's nervous politeness and campfire bonding in the first 1/3, the way the huge spaces of the house make them value each other as proof the scenery hasn't chewed them rather than vice versa, and the way their language betrays their lack of real life experience. When Owen tries to win Jones over by patronizingly talking about her in the third person to Liam, "I see a little Jackie Susann in Theo" for example, I like that she doesn't buy it, instead just gives him a "sarcastic chuckle" like she would if her five year old brother was making jealous jokes about her boyfriend.

Believe it or not, it's actually Liam Neeson who comes off the worst in this version, like he's never worked with CGI before! Bitch, what about STAR WARS? Oh yeah, he sleep-walked through that too. Don't get me wrong, I feel bad for actors forced to pretend with all their might that a ping-pong ball-covered boom mic is a racist caricature alien or a living four-poster bed, but that's why they get paid the big bucks. If I had to pick a favorite Liam moment - it's near the end when Liam has the demon bed hovering over him, fixing to stab him with one of its poster poles, and his reaction is more like a man hearing the phone ring while half-asleep than someone trying to not get crushed and devoured. Liam! Wake up! It's the devouring bed scene! Deathbed! The Bed that Eats!

Then there's the decor: floor to ceiling, vast, staggeringly ornate but beautiful, style so vividly and gorgeously unified that--in my misery--left me totally turned on and weirded out by it: cherubs don't usually creep me out in a good way but in a suffocating grandma doily under the candy dish way. Here, they're not scary but they don't suffocate me, and the house is so packed with great detail it's like the art directors thought they would never work again once this came out, so were determined to cram in the entirety of the rest of their life's artistic contributions into every hallway, no matter what it cost.

Then there's Jan de Bont's directorial style, which illuminates the difference between boring 'good' and fun 'bad'. Robert Wise, director of the original is a talented journeyman who occasionally gets inspired, as in parts of WEST SIDE STORY, but time and again mistakes boring for important (he didn't direct the dance numbers, so it's pretty easy to guess what he did direct --all the drippy nonsense between miscast Beymer and Wood). I love 50s sci-fi and have seen Hawks' original THING a hundred times but have only seen Wise's preachy DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL once or twice. Who wants to be reminded how lame humans are? Or suffer an all-American apple-cheeked sprat? Unless you're a nuclear war proponent, or ever took a potshot at a friendly, unarmed alien who only wanted to threaten you with planetary destruction, watching it is like getting yelled at for a crime you didn't commit. But oh it's iconic, Gort and all that. Yeah, what does Gort do? He just stops other people from doing things. He's strictly reactive. That's kind of Wise's style. Like DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, his HAUNTING is considered one of the definitive classics of the genre. Yeah but... does it soothe your anxious soul on cold rainy Monday evenings? Fuck no it doesn't. Everyone shouts and yells, Julie Harris frumps and frowns brilliantly but the lighting is too bright (these people sleep in brightly lit bedrooms) though it darkens as the film goes along--I'm sure an intentional effect as the night creeps over the narrative, and the photography gets better and better, but the fear is offset by a sometimes bombastic score, and the askew camera angles (following sounds across walls, etc.), the echo-laden booming sound effects, and the relentless inner monologue commentary from Harris all hammer at the soul--we never know what is a diegetic creepy house noise and what is 'interior' like Harris' monologues. And topping it all off is the patronizing way they all want to send her away from the house the more she wants to stay, packing her bags and booting her out the door, ignoring her protestations like a child's tantrum. If construed as patriarchal it might scan a "Yellow Wallpaper" illustration of the belittling of women and by association of the spiritual and intuitive, but it also begs the question of what else was Dr. Markway looking for if not this very reaction? Naturally he's worried about the scandal if she dies, but if he's conducting an experiment where are his cameras and recorders? He wants to document the paranormal but makes no attempt to do so, merely babbles his sub-Jungian "who knows what lurks beyond the known" blah blah, reacting to every new incident that can't be explained with a shrug.

The thing with Wise's version is that maybe it's not a ghost story at all. Maybe it's all just in Julie Harris's mind--though that wouldn't explain the dialogue or the fact that other people are seen reacting to it. Also, she's a great actress but I never much cared about what's going on in her mind. To me she lacks chemistry, charisma, grace. What she does have is a compendium of asexual old maid neuroses to the point she seldom becomes more than a shrill hysteric of the sort one wishes one wasn't related to, and there's no earthly reason James Dean would ever fall in love with her in EAST OF EDEN instead of Carroll Baker! I love Lili Taylor though, in this version, and the dusky burgundy color scheme gives her eyes a steady twinkle - her emotions are always so on her sleeve that we're never sure just how much of what's going on is due to her own psychic projection or ours. We're spared interior monologues, drab patriarchal coddlings, and all the other malarkey associated with Harris' neurotic old maid. Not only do I want to know what's on Taylor's mind, I feel like I do - the window is wide open--she doesn't need that trite inner commentary.

Lili Taylor uses the Liz Taylor style of acting, Harris the Vivian Leigh style (i.e. movie acting vs. theater acting). Even when she's holding back, Taylor's like a cat that just swallowed a canary of a role and isn't afraid to let a few feathers fall out of her mouth. Harris or Leigh would just waft into the room with one of the feathers in her arms, cradling it like the calla lilies are in bloom again.

No, there's only one reason to re-watch the 1963 HAUNTING: foxy lesbian psychic Claire Bloom, especially in the sexy-scary bed scenes with Harris (though again, the scariness is undone by the flat TV lighting. But there are three reasons to see the 1999 edition: the gorgeous interior sets (the unique attempts to make the house seem alive are very Lacanian), and the two lovely ladies. Sure sure sure, who am I to dare declare the 1963 HAUNTING overrated and as drab as a sunny afternoon wasted watching SOUND OF MUSIC in the gymnasium on the last day of school, followed by watching the music teacher's alternative lifestyle be insinuated in condescending tones by the uptight spinster principal? I'm just a man who escaped that auditorium, who went to the bathroom and never came back.  And now I'm standing before Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor as they run, hand-in-hand, through wild dark sets, and at last I'm feeling the grueling slog of a cold wet Monday finally melt off me, as if from a slug of laudanum with a Jaeger chaser. Mmmmm--so dark.... and so gloriously, calorically empty, like the warm glow of a phantom fireplace as imagined by a dying match girl.


  1. Don't you think Stacy Keach would make a great Reid Fleming?

  2. No doubt, but he would have to be the younger Keach. Another good one, Brian Dennehy


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