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Films
by Kathi Maio

Getting Back to Basics

In 1959, a master of twentieth-century horror named Shirley Jackson published a novel called The Haunting of Hill House, a book that clearly illustrates the subversive delights of the author's best work. For although Jackson makes full use of one of the most hackneyed formulas of modern suspense, the damsel-in- distress-in-a-spooky-house gothic, she puts her own, very distinctive spin on it.

In a standard modern gothic, a meek, inexperienced woman comes to an austere locale, gets scared, and finds romance. And, in a really sad and twisted way, I guess you could say that this is the fate of Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance.

Nell had spent her entire youth caring for her unhappy and unloving invalid mother. Now, with her mother dead, she is free. But for what? She has no wealth, no home (except for a cot in her harridan sister's house), and no experience of the outside world. She has been shut away in a sick room for so long that she blinks in the sun. When, out of the blue, Eleanor receives an invitation to take part in psychical research in a brooding Berkshires estate, she leaps at the chance.

Perhaps Eleanor had read some of those formula gothics, too. Because she expects--like Jackson's readers--great things to come from her getaway to the gothic manse. "Journeys end in lovers meeting," is Miss Vance's mantra. But Shirley Jackson is not one to meet expectations. And poor Eleanor finds no brooding yet gallant lifemate at Hill House. Not in the married paranormal researcher, Dr. John Montague, who hopes to document the phenomena of a haunted house. Nor in feckless, young Luke, likely heir to the "deranged" (as the Professor terms it) mansion. And to add yet another "perverse" element to her story, Jackson even introduces another woman as possible true love for our heroine. Is the worldly Theodora a lesbian? We never find out for sure. But certainly the attentions she showers on the love-starved Eleanor goes beyond simple, friendly acquaintance. So much so that Eleanor resolves to follow Theo home at the end of their experimental work.

When she rejects Eleanor, Theo makes it clear that her new friend will be unwanted in her home. "I've never been wanted anywhere," is Eleanor's placid reply. But that's not strictly true. If none of its human inmates want her for their own, Hill House itself seems quite ardent in its pursuit of Eleanor. Much of the midnight clanging and all of the mysterious messages found in the house are directed at Nell. Is it all an unstable, lonely young woman's delusion? Jackson leaves it to us to decide. Yet it's hard to shake the idea that this "haunted" house has claimed another woman, as a lover might, providing poor, sad Nell with eternal shelter from the human storm.

Not exactly the romantic ending a reader might expect. But that's what makes the story such a compelling one. No wonder that Hollywood soon came calling to requisition it.

In 1963, a screen adaptation of Jackson's novel, called The Haunting, was released. Both director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding tried to stay as faithful to the original story as possible. As in the editing of the title, a tightening up (and paring down) of the story does occur. Minor characters are expunged. But a real respect is shown for Jackson's sensibilities.

Shot in black and white, prior to the days of modern computer-generated FX, the film still offers several striking images, including an impressive, pre-"morphing" transformation of a bereft young girl into a sick and sorrowful old woman, right before our eyes. Yet, Wise has little interest in producing elaborate physical manifestations of a haunting. Instead, he tries to capture the sensation of fear. And succeeds in doing so, admirably. We get a few harsh and eery sounds, and some odd camera angles of objects like doors and turrets. But we never see any monsters or ghostly apparitions--or gore of any kind.

Instead, through the solid acting of Julie Harris, and a touch of skillful voiceover narration, the audience is able to share Eleanor's experience of Hill House. Is this the portrait of a distraught woman sliding into suicidal insanity? Or is this a vulnerable creature falling into the possession of an evil, stone and mortar, entity. Again, it's our call. But whatever an individual audience member decides, they will almost certainly be shaken by the viewing.

Nineteen-ninety-nine's The Haunting is liable to haunt no one. And if audience members leave the theater shaking, it can only be with derisive laughter.

As directed by Jan DeBont, and written by David Self (with re-shoot doctoring by, they say, Michael Tolkin), this new Haunting not only plays fast and loose with Jackson's story, it does so in a way that epitomizes all that is wrong with big budget--this one cost $80 million--horror films.

DeBont is not a filmmaker known for character-driven or subtle storytelling, of course. This is the man who hurls cows (Twister) and cruise ships (Speed 2) at a viewer's head, hoping they'll be impressed. And, in his latest outing, he tries the same approach with things that go bump in the night. It doesn't work. The director's Hill House is a CGI fun house, to be sure, loaded to the rafters with stone griffins that attack and bedframes that seek to impale their inhabitants. But despite all that, none of the showy effects have the power to frighten us. They are too over-the-top and too literal-minded.

The men who made this movie forgot one simple rule of horror: It is what we don't know, and what we cannot see that leaves us quaking in our boots.

And to make matters worse, the writers completely reworked Shirley Jackson's original story. (Does the phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mean nothing to you, my lads?) In this version, Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) is no longer an above- board scholar of the supernatural. This guy is a sadist who wants to do an analysis of human fear, but tells his research subjects that he is doing a sleep disorder study. This is not only dishonest, it also makes no sense. If he doesn't think Hill House is possessed of demons, why does he think his subjects will exhibit enough fear to document? And if he does think that the ghost of the house's original owner is a monster seeking to destroy all those who enter his domain, why the heck is he willing to stay there himself?

The other members of the study group are based a little more clearly on the Jackson model. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays trendy, bi-sexual (and proud of it) Theo. Owen Wilson plays slacker heir, Luke. And Lili Taylor plays awkward, self-sacrificing Eleanor.

A word about Lili Taylor: Along with Parker Posey, she is the best and most prolific "leading lady" of today's American independent cinema. If you don't go to indies, you probably have no idea who she is. But, take my word for it, she is just about as good as it gets. (See Dogfight, Household Saints, or I Shot Andy Warhol for examples of her work.) I have prayed long and hard for Taylor to bring her talents to a wider audience. It's a crying shame that darling Lili's major studio breakthrough had to be in this turkey.

What DeBont does to Lili Taylor is almost as tragic as what the film's author does to the character of Eleanor. No longer is Nell a grieving, emotionally-deprived young woman looking for love and a nice home. Now she is some kind of psychic avenger, born to the task of freeing the souls of dead wives and murdered children imprisoned by Hugh Crain, the demonic builder of the place. Originally, the owner of Hill House was a pathetic puritan who, like most prosperous men of the early 19th century, wasn't the warmest father or husband. Self's Crain is satan incarnate, an early industrialist who seems to have killed his youngest workers on a whim.

As best as I could make out the preposterous plot, modern- day Eleanor is the descendent of one Crain's unhappy wives, and was therefore destined to come to Hill House beat back the devil Crain. As the loopy tale builds to a crescendo, Crain tries to possess Eleanor and our virginal heroine (complete with diaphanous white nightie) fights a battle royale with her demonic host. If you can set aside Jackson's superior novel, there is, I admit, a certain campy potential to this plot tangent. But the filmmakers completely squander it.

Forget about their questionable theology. The real issue here is that after Eleanor becomes their exorcist extraordinaire, facing down and banishing a rather flamboyant fiend, the filmmakers kill her off. The original Eleanor had nothing to live for--no love, no home, no prospects. For her, dying and becoming a member of the ghostly sorority of Hill House was a tragic but somehow apt end to her unhappy life. But Self and DeBont's Nell becomes a Superhero, a virginal avenger who can defeat evil with the power of her voice and her will. That gal has a job to do, and they should have let her live to do it again, and again.

Not that I'd want to turn these guys loose on another story like this. Heaven, and the goddess Eleanor, forbid. In fact, I'd like to think that Hollywood would learn a lesson from this movie. And if the lackluster returns on The Haunting don't make the point, perhaps the success of a concurrent ghost story, The Blair Witch Project, will bring it home.

The Blair Witch Project is a first (general release) feature from a pair of young filmmakers named Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. And it represents a novel approach to fictional filmmaking. The co-writer/directors devised a scenario and then hired three unknown actors (with improvisational skills) to live it. Filmed during a near twenty-four-hour-a-day, eight day shoot, by the actors themselves, the mock-documentary is labeled as the found footage of three young filmmakers who went into Maryland woods to record the legend of a local "witch," and never returned.

Through "director" Heather Donahue's video diary, we see the project from the start, as she and her cameraman (Joshua Leonard) and soundman (Michael Williams) set out for the forest not far from Burkittsville, Maryland. They bring with them all the enthusiasm of film buffs who grew up on horror films, and all the skepticism of modern, educated folk who don't really believe that ghosts and demons exist.

From the townies, they collect a few stories of the Blair Witch. These tales of disappearances and murders fuel their interest and make them even more eager to enter the forest lair of this mythic figure. But soon there is discord amongst the trio. Good-natured teasing quickly turns to accusations, recriminations and fear, as the three twentysomethings realize that they are lost in the woods. And dread mounts as they come to believe that they are being taunted and stalked by the witch herself.

There are zero special effects in Blair Witch Project. We never see the witch. Nor do we see the direct effects of her violence. We see a few piles of rocks, and odd crosses hanging from bare trees. We hear rustling and cries in the night. And we watch as three cheerful and confident young people are consumed by terror.

The Blair Witch Project developed mega-buzz at Sundance. And with the help of multiple websites, good publicity from its distributor, Artisan (who also handled last year's low-budget SF sensation, Pi), and a mockumentary on the mockumentary, "The Curse of the Blair Witch," which ran--repeatedly--on the Sci-Fi Channel, the buzz kept building. No film can live up to that kind of cult hype. And this one doesn't . . . quite. All the shaky camera work gets old after a while. And although it's under an hour and half in length, Blair Witch Project still feels a little long for the story it tells.

Nevertheless, there is still no denying the low-tech horror this film is able to deliver. Shot for less than $50,000, it is a hundred times the movie Jan DeBont made for $80 mil. Blair Witch Project is a better movie because it knows that a tear running down the face of a character we care about (Heather Donahue) is much more disturbing than a CGI statue that tries to drown a character we don't care about (Dr. Marrow) in a fountain of blood. Sanchez and Myrick are also smart enough not to undercut the potency of their tale by attempting to explain the unexplainable. They leave us with a mystery capable of haunting our dreams.

Early on in Blair Witch Project, Heather discusses her vision with her crew. Don't go for any "cheesy" effects, she tells them, "the legend is unsettling enough." Somebody, please, take a memo to Hollywood.

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