I love me some Shirley Jackson, and, more specifically, I love her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and have since I first started getting into horror early in my adolescence. Jackson’s novel was one of the first horror pieces I ever consumed that placed so much precedence on atmosphere over shock value, and it stayed with me long after I set the book down, even in my numerous re-reads of the novel over the years. I also love Robert Wise’s adaption of the novel in the 1963 film, The Haunting, which adapted Jackson’s novel with near-perfect precision, creating a quiet, gloomy horror film, breaking from many of the hammy B-horror films of the time. I also love Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix mini-series, The Haunting of Hill House, which doesn’t follow the novel faithfully, but rather pays homage to the novel with a new story mired in atmosphere, great emotion, and tender empathy. However, in-between these two critically lauded adaptions, there’s a version of Jackson’s novel that is much more peculiar and stranger than either of the two more grounded adaptions: Jan de Bont’s 1999 remake, The Haunting.
Released at the independent height of DreamWorks, The Haunting is a true ‘90s blockbuster of a horror film with a focus on the glossy production value of the $80 million horror film. Starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor; directed by Jan de Bont, director of ‘90s hits Speed and Twister; and executive produced by Steven Spielberg; is this updated new vision of the classic novel with modern moviemaking magic. Upon release, the film attracted audiences to the tune of $180 million, but it failed to connect with critics (with film critic Roger Ebert famously being one of the film’s supporters), resulting in the film ultimately being lost in the modern age as a critical failure. Despite this, Paramount (owning the rights to the DreamWorks back catalog), has finally given The Haunting its due as a part of its new Paramount Presents line of premium Blu-rays.
Perhaps it’s because I saw the film when I was younger and have let it come through the years with me, but I quite like the 1999 version of The Haunting, albeit in a very different way than I appreciate the other two adaptions of the novel. While it generally follows the novel’s outline, the film places much more focus on the house as a visual medium for the showcase of the cutting-edge special effects of the time. These effects have not aged particularly well, and it definitely makes the film’s atmosphere far less subtle and creepy. However, there’s an endearing quality about The Haunting that makes the film feel reminiscent of a theme park haunted house ride, more like one at a Busch Gardens rather than a cheap one at a state fair. Sure, it’s not particularly scary, but the glossy effects work makes everything fun and thrilling in its own right.
This is also helped quite a bit by the seasoned cast’s willingness to go along with every little ridiculous thing they’re put through come the film’s finale. The wonderful and unique chemistry between each character makes them entirely engaging and likable. Zeta-Jones, in particular, as the free-spirited queer artist Theo, makes the most of every moment of screen time she’s given, and it seems very apparent that de Bont knows this in his increased utilization of her character within the story.
While the new Paramount Presents Blu-ray (ironically titled, as this film leads with a “DreamWorks Pictures Presents” title card) doesn’t offer much in the way of special features, the inclusion of a behind-the-scenes featurette hosted by Zeta-Jones is a delight, as is a new retrospective featurette with Jan de Bont looking back on the film after 20 years where de Bont recognizes both the strides and mistakes he made while also still fully standing by his film.
While the special features are a bit lacking, the new 4K remaster of the film and audio mix from its original 35mm source is nothing short of perfect. The visuals of the film are most impressive when de Bont allows the film to merely focus on the stunning production design work by Oscar-winner Eugenio Zanetti, and this new remaster allows the image to show off every tiny little detail that went into every room, and every piece of carpentry and masonry work that went into the house’s pillars, carvings, sculptures, floorings, furniture and décor, making The Haunting feel so lush and atmospheric (before things go completely batshit). Even the outdated visual effects are given a neat polish that forgives some of the more egregiously obvious moments (again, this is a Busch Gardens, not a state fair). Color grading is rich and sophisticated, with near-perfect black levels and beautifully remastered warm-neutral tones of dark mahogany woodwork and burgundy textiles in the furniture. It’s all just so incredibly remastered to bring out the best this film has to offer.
On the audio front, The Haunting has also been given a loving new lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remaster that brings all the ambiance and atmosphere that one could hope for in a film like The Haunting. With sound design by 19-time Oscar-nominee, 7-time winner Gary Rydstrom, the film’s remastered audio track places every bump in the night and ghoulish groan through the cavernous hallways of Hill House with expert precision. Come the film’s boisterous finale, the low frequency effects (LFE) kick into high gear and provide a meaty but balanced intensity that brings the whole thing to an aurally magnificent conclusion.
With this wondrous transfer, do I wish the film could’ve gotten a 4K Blu-ray release with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack? Of course, but seeing as this is the first time The Haunting has been available on Blu-ray, how could I complain about such love being put into a film that I thought I was the only one who actually appreciated? The film isn’t perfect by any means, and I would easily say that it’s the worst version of Jackson’s novel made for the screen, but with a committed and charming cast, wondrously lush production values (sans its sometimes egregious CGI effects work), and generally whimsically, fun attitude to the whole experience, I’d say that any fan of this underappreciated cheeseball blockbuster will walk away from this release not pleased.
The Haunting Special Features
- *New* Filmmaker Focus: Jan de Bont on The Haunting
- Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
- Theatrical Teaser
- Theatrical Trailer
- Premium slipcover with a fold-out flap featuring original theatrical poster.
Available on Blu-ray/digital Combo Pack October 20th, 2020.