Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 23, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Blair Witch” isn’t the only horror show in theaters now

Much of ”The Haunting of Hill House,” Shirley Jackson’s terrifically broody novel, has been updated wholesale in ”The Haunting,” but there’s one speech that makes it from the page to the screen word for word. ”I leave before dark comes,” says the housekeeper, ominously. ”We live over in town, six miles away. So there won’t be anyone around if you need help. We couldn’t even hear you, in the night. No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark.”

On the page, this over-the-top mood setter is a corker. But in the theater, the folks I saw ”The Haunting” with laughed their wiseacre heads off. They snickered when doors slammed shut and bedposts rattled. The audience was hip; they knew the conventions of horror flicks. And they knew spook-story claptrap when they saw it.

We’re a formidable bunch to scare today, at least with ghosts and gore. Toughened by ”Halloween,” amused by ”Scream,” even the bloodiest terrors have taken on a certain coziness: Villains jumping out of parking-lot shadows, devil-possessed heads swiveling, sharks and alligators and anacondas devouring stupid swimmers: seen that, done that, bought the Burger King tie-in merchandise.

Compared with such old-fangled mayhem, ”The Blair Witch Project” is indeed a brilliant new invention (at least for folks who have never listened to radio dramas): The most terrifying moments in the film take place when the characters can’t see a thing, in the dark. But for all the shrieking inspired by ”Blair,” there are plenty of other high-quality scares to be had at the movies this summer, provided you know where to look.

Take a gander at Joan Cusack’s fabulously sickening smile in ”Arlington Road,” for instance, when, as a terrorist disguised as a mild-mannered suburbanite, she corners Hope Davis as a neighbor who’s on to her. Cusack can flash a grin as bright as lit birthday candles, but this time, her cheeriness is hellishly warped.

Get a good long eyeful of Kirstie Alley as a monstrous stage mother in ”Drop Dead Gorgeous” and marvel at how horribly off the rails a satire can go when it’s fueled by snide bitterness rather than astringent compassion.

Stare at the masked, naked, automaton women sleepwalking through the icy orgy scene in ”Eyes Wide Shut” and shudder at how a concept employed so wittily in a Robert Palmer video can go so buck-nakedly wrong under Stanley Kubrick’s overdirection.

Gape at Kenneth Branagh’s ghoulish Confederate accent in ”Wild, Wild West” and, while you’re at it, shiver at how such a big, big picture could be so lewdly, crudely bad.

Tremble before the size of the hole in the pie in ”American Pie.”

Flinch at the untamed overgrowth of Austin Powers’ chest hair while watching ”The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

Worry about the entire future of intelligent comedy while yukking witlessly at ”Big Daddy.”

And, when you’re really up for a paroxysm of pure fright: Get a load of the size of John Travolta’s neck in ”The General’s Daughter”! Eek!

You May Like