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Summer Movie Preview: July, 1999

We give you the lowdown on ''American Pie,'' ''The Blair Witch Project,'' ''Wild, Wild West,'' and more

The Haunting
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes
Directed by: Jan De Bont
What's the big deal? The director of Twister makes a screamer with a Jedi Master and that foxy saber-wielding lass from The Mask of Zorro.

Some movies get criticized for having sets that upstage their actors. But that would be high praise for The Haunting, given that the real star of this DreamWorks production is the zonkiest haunted house this side of Scooby-Doo. ''I really treat the house as a character,'' says De Bont. ''I treat it as a lead — a very expensive lead.'' And a temperamental one, too, with its helix-swirled staircases trembling and collapsing, marble griffins that come to malevolent life, and bedrooms with walls that can fondle, grope, and violate — all because the spirits of the house's previous occupants can't pass into the sweet hereafter.

This is the second film to be based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. The first, also called The Haunting, was directed by The Sound of Music's Robert Wise and released 36 years ago. This adaptation has stayed away from Jackson's full title as well, thereby avoiding confusion with Warner Bros.' horror flick House on Haunted Hill coming this fall. De Bont's high-tech adaptation, however, does adhere to Jackson's basic plot: A professor (Neeson, in what will be his follow-up to the new Star Wars) conducts a mysterious psychological experiment on three test subjects — in this case, a troubled recluse (Ransom's Taylor), an exotic extrovert (Zorro's Zeta-Jones), and a prototypical slacker (Armageddon's Wilson) — in a mansion capable of its own disturbing behavior.

''I like to think of this as The Shining on the sets of Citizen Kane,'' says Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Zanetti, who found his exteriors in dreary old England but built his interiors in sunny Southern California. Steeped in shadow and ominous in its blend of Moorish, Victorian, and Gothic architecture, the set scared the heck out of its cast. ''I'd never be caught dead on this set after dark,'' says Zeta-Jones. Capturing that terror on film wasn't always easy, however. The studio lost its original director of photography, the highly respected Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff), one week into shooting, over differences in approach. No such trouble with the sound. De Bont had a battery of over 50 effects, including ''loud creak,'' ''short scrape,'' and ''moaning,'' designed and recorded during preproduction so he could terrorize his actors with them during the shoot. (The Haunting will be the second film to utilize the new Dolby Digital-Surround EX sound system; The Phantom Menace will have been the first.) For the director, this creepy but controlled environment was just what the doctor ordered. ''I'm finally in a situation where you have control and aren't dependent on the weather, traffic, boats, buses, tornadoes,'' says De Bont. ''It's a really good feeling.'' (July 23, 1999)

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