This version of The Haunting of Hill House went through several ideations and creative hands, starting with Wes Craven, who ultimately decided to make Scream instead. Steven Spielberg, this film’s executive producer, had talked to Stephen King that 1963’s The Haunting was a great starting point and that the Winchester Mystery House would be a great setting. However, the two had creative differences, with King ultimately leaving and creating Rose Red, his take on the story.
Jan de Bont, who was the cinematographer on the Tippi Hedren project Roar (which we absolutely must get into soon), Cujo and Die Hard, as well as the director of Speed and Twister, is the director of the final product, which was a troubled shoot that had cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Emily and Zooey) leave one week into filming.
Exterior shots and the billiard room scenes use Harlaxton Manor — the house from The Ruling Class — as Hill House, while the interiors were filmed in a dome-shaped hangar in Long Beach, California that once housed Howard Hughes’ gigantic Spruce Goose.
Eleanor “Nell” Vance (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) has just lost her home after caring for her invalid mother for more than a decade. She gets a call from Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), who is conducting a study of insomniacs at Hill House, which will include Luke Sanderson (Owen Wilson), Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and two of Marrow’s research assistants.
When they arrive at the foreboding house, they meet its caretakers, the Dudleys (Bruce Dern and theater actress Marian Seldes), who lock everyone into the mansion. Unknown to everyone involved, Dr. Marrow’s doesn’t intend to study insomnia, but instead how the body reacts to fear. He plans on slowly exposing everyone to increasing amounts of terror.
That’s when Dr. Marrow tells the story of Hill House, a place built by Hugh Crain, who built it for his wife and children, who all died at birth. Crain’s wife killed herself before the house was finished and the tycoon became a recluse. One of the assistants doesn’t believe this story and she’s instantly injured, taking Marrow’s two helpers out of the equation as they leave for the hospital.
Before you know it, statues are coming to life, words are being written in blood and statues are trying to drown people. Turns out that Crain used orphans for child labor and would torture and kill them in his home before burning their bodies. He also had a second wife and Eleanor is a relative of the family who feels that she has to stay in the house to keep the children safe forever.
Keep in mind — this isn’t a remake of the Robert Wise film, as the production company didn’t get the rights and weren’t allowed to replicate any of the shots from the original. Instead, they had to start from scratch.
My biggest issue with this film is that has no real idea of what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a Disney style movie like The Haunted Mansion? Or is a gory shocker? Because if you want to see Owen Wilson get beheaded, well, good news. This is the movie for you. This is a CGI dependent affair and what was cutting edge in 1999 looks dated today, unlike the 1963 film which is timeless.