The Haunting

The Haunting (1999)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lily Taylor, Owen Wilson, Liam Neeson
Extras: Documentary, Theatrical Trailers

When I first saw "The Haunting" in theaters I was slightly disappointed because it was not the scarefest I had hoped it would be. However, even then I was mesmerized by the film’s phenomenal production design, and the overall atmosphere director Jan DeBont’s latest film was creating. Using pictures and sounds in a way that weaves them inexplicably together for an eerie, yet beautiful tapestry, was ultimately that made the movie very enjoyable for me. Now, Dreamworks Home Entertainment is bringing this movie to DVD and from the opening moments it is immediately clear that they have done everything to preserving the film’s haunting atmosphere.

Answering classified ads from a newspaper, three insomniacs agree to participate in an experiment that is supposed to shed more light on their sleeplessness. Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) is taking them to "Hill House", a gigantic mansion in New England, where in isolation he can study their behaviors. Nell (Lily Taylor) is simply escaping her real life after her mother’s death, while to Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) it is just another adventure in her restless life. Luke (Owen Wilson) on the other hand just wants to get rid of his sleeping disorders and has high hopes for the study.

Dr. Marrow has not been honest with his participants however. He is not a bit interested in their sleeping habits; he is making a study in fear theories. "Hill House" is a house with a history, a dark and ominous legacy, and soon after their arrival Dr. Marrow starts planting seeds of terror in each of the individuals’ minds, to see how they behave under these isolated circumstances. Nell seems the most susceptible to his ghost stories, but soon it turns out there is more to the stories than even he thought. The ‘humbug’ turns into a real thread when the house comes alive and the study becomes a horrifying nightmare to all of them.

"The Haunting" was clearly designed as an effects vehicle, and not as a hard-core horror film. For that, the story is nonetheless surprisingly spooky and to an extend even scary, despite the fact that many of the film’s elements are predictable, including the ending – although the movies’ final minutes do have a good number of racy twists and unexpected turns. The effects work beautifully within the film’s context, and I especially liked the ethereal quality of the ones established earlier in the film. Towards the film’s third act, the filmmakers pull out the big guns – and I mean BIG guns – and create an orgiastic special effects galore. It mixes very organic effects that enhance the film’s fright factor with others that are obvious showpieces. After all those years, I am still of the opinion that it is what you don’t see as opposed to what you see that makes a good scare, but at the same time seeing whole parts of the house come to life is quite an experience too.

It is ultimately the production design and overall creepy atmosphere of the film that is utterly captivating. Expansive sets that are highly elaborate and detailed turn the soundstages into the real "Hill House" – sinister, yet romanticly captivating place you do not necessarily want to spend your nights in. The architecture, the interior design and the lighting is staggering and it the film is easily worth a separate viewing only to adore all the elaborate set pieces and the gorgeous cinematography you get to see throughout the movie. The house itself has such a dark and foreboding quality that some of the film’s early incidents seem almost natural, inevitable and logical. The longer the film goes, the further it moves away from the realm of suggested uneasiness to more overt shocks, but never breaking the ominous feeling of gloom that hangs over the house.

The film is presented almost entirely as an ensemble piece with only four characters in the haunted mansion. Each one of them plays an equally important role and the cast in "The Haunting" is just great in pulling it off. Lili Taylor is fabulous as the reclusive Nell and Catherine Zeta-Jones ignites the screen in every scenes she is in. (Would someone in Hollywoood please make her a Bond girl next time around, please…)

Dreamworks is putting out a brilliant presentation of the film on this DVD. The transfer quality is perfect without any flaws, speckles dust or other film artifacts. Not the slightest hint of noise or film grain is evident anywhere in this transfer. The image is very sharp and contains an incredible amount of detail, breathtakingly reproducing every bit of information from the film print. The compression is also flawless without any signs of <$pixelation,pixelation> or other compression artifacts. In a nutshell, this is how a DVD has to look like! "The Haunting" is presented in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this disc, in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets. Interestingly, due to the sheer level of detail and the amazing delicacy of the film’s production design, there are quite number of aliasing artifacts evident when watching the movie in its downconverted version on 4:3 TV sets. On 16×9 <$PS,widescreen> television sets however, the definition is nothing short of stunning due to the increased resolution of the <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer.

The DVD of "The Haunting" contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack in English, and it is everything you would expect. As a matter of fact, although not advertised on the packaging, the disc actually contains a <$THXEX,THX EX> 6.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack that adds an additional surround center channel to the mix if you have the according equipment. If you have seen the film in theaters, you already have an idea of what to expect, but even then, the audio track presented on this release is utterly impressive. I actually found it to be clearer and more understandable than in theaters. The film makes great use of the 5.1 format’s subwoofer and split surrounds. The bass extension is going well below 25 Hz, shaking your house to its basement, while the surround effects will constantly emphasize the film’s chilly and eerie atmosphere either with directional ambient sound effects, or full blown surround fields that track with the camera. At any time, the surrounds are getting a good work out and without a doubt, "The Haunting" is a showcase disc for the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound format. The same is true for the film’s orchestral soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. He captures the haunting, dark atmosphere of the movie nicely and projects it into the music that oftentimes adds tension to the images on screen. It is notable that the film is very carefully scored and music is placed rather sparingly, considering that many movies today sport up to 90 minutes of music. With ease, Goldsmith manages perfectly to blend his score with the sound effects that carry the film in general.

Dreamworks’ release of "The Haunting" also contains some supplements. Oddly enough however, for a "Signature Selection" release, the extras on this disc are rather meager. The only notable extra apart from obligatory cast & crew biographies and theatrical trailers is a 30 minute documentary hosted by main actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. Thankfully this documentary is not your standard fare that mostly replicates scenes from the film with the occasional comment by an actor. The featurette focuses on two things. The cast and the crew with quite lengthy interviews by director Jan DeBont and cast members, embellished with some great behind-the-scenes footage, and on haunted houses in general. It takes you to the real "Hill House" where the exteriors for the film where shot and tells you about the real story of this gigantic mansion. It will also take you to other haunted places in England, adding to the enchanting atmosphere through eye-witness accounts.

Sadly, the disc does not contain a <$commentary,commentary track>, which is both surprising and somewhat disappointing. Since the film itself is a special effects show, blending numerous practical effects with computer generated effects almost through the entire movie, it would have been great to hear more about the approach and the methodologies that went into the creation of the film.

While "The Haunting" is certainly not the ultimate in scare films, as the filmmakers wanted it to be, it is nonetheless an extremely enjoyable and creepy thrill ride that will give you a good jump here and there. It is the film’s dark and eerie atmosphere that defines the tone, and it is there that the movie really shines. I had a great time diving into the intangible evil that lurks inside the house repeatedly now, and the magic never ceases to paint dark and enigmatic images in my own mind. Luckily Dreamworks has done everything to ensure that this atmosphere has been perfectly captured on this DVD so that you can reproduce it in all its glory in your own home theater. This is a reference quality DVD, with a stellar visual and sonic presentation. Pump up the volume and enter, if you dare.