The scariest thing about The Haunting is how awful it is. No, worse than awful: desperate. It’s a horror flick afraid of its own audience, as lost in its own geography as the fictional film crew in The Blair Witch Project. But where the disorientation of the Blair Witch kids leads fright lovers to a novel experience of terror and suggests an inventive new direction for the genre, the cluelessness of The Haunting — a production grounded in old-fashioned horror conventions but undone by a new-fashioned, know-it-all attitude — points to the death of spookiness.
It didn’t have to be this way. Shirley Jackson’s eerie 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, tells of a trio of guests under the observation of a ”doctor of philosophy” who gathers his subjects at the eponymous mansion to study ”the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as ‘haunted.”’ Eleanor, also called Nell, is a fearful spinster who has sacrificed her own happiness to care for a hateful, invalid mother, now dead; Theodora, who calls herself Theo, is a brazen, provocative sybarite, attracted to women as well as men; Luke is a flip and boorish manipulator who (in Jackson’s book) also stands to inherit Hill House someday.
For the author, The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story but it’s also, clearly, a journey of psychological and sexual awakening — especially for the virginal Eleanor, who hears the spirits of the place calling to her. When, in thrall to voices (and her psyche), she ascends a perilous spiral staircase in an ”intoxicating” climb with the doctor in manly pursuit, that’s suspense — but it’s also sex, baby. And Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of the book, The Haunting, in Bergmanesque black and white, teases out the Freudian implications of every gargoyle with the kind of intense regard only an entire movie industry engrossed in psychoanalysis could produce. (You haven’t seen a groovy insinuation of lesbianism until you’ve seen Claire Bloom as Theo, dressed head to toe in Mary Quant, sidling up to Julie Harris’ Nell.)
But — to quote David Self’s dull-edged script in this latest, anti-analytical update — what is wrong with you people? With Freudian subtext gone the way of I’m OK, You’re OK and pre-ironic moviegoing innocence subverted by Scream and its ilk, there’s little left to interest us, let alone haunt us, in The Haunting. Sure, there are movie stars, emoting madly when not tossing off jaunty one-liners. And there are plenty of frightfully busy sets, made even busier when they come alive — sculptures lunging, walls pulsing, floorboards popping, that sort of thing — via computer-generated showmanship.