And now we reach the last in our trifecta of pointless remakes of classic haunted house films. While all of these films were made despite being both unwanted and unneeded today’s film, The Haunting 1999, is very much a case of saving the worst ‘til last (as no warbling chanteuse ever sang). Far from merely being silly and unscary, but still vaguely entertaining, which is basically what House on Haunted Hill 1999 and Thir13en Ghosts boil down to, The Haunting 1999 is so soul destroyingly bad that it should come with a public health warning. It is so dreadful; it has not so much toppled Black Xmas from the top of my list of ‘Most Loathed Horror Remakes’, but forcibly dropkicked that film into second place. And now you’re all pepped up and feeling positive about this review, let’s down to business. Spoilers to Follow.
A) The House Wasn’t ‘Born’ Bad, It was Built By A Mentalist, and B) Was The Rest Of The Quote “…Terrified By How Fucking Awful They Are”?
So, Nell (Played by Lilli Taylor) has a really awful family. She spent the last 11 years looking after her mother, and now she’s dead, her sister and odious husband plan to sell the mother’s flat, leaving Nell homeless. But they aren’t total heartless monsters; they are willing to let Nell have some ancient heap of a car and the chance to come and live with them and play nanny to their evil spawn child. And then they act surprised when Nell orders them to get out, some people are just so unreasonable, right guys? Nell receives a phone call from…somebody, who tells her about an advert in the local paper calling for insomniacs to participate in a study for $900 a week. Nice, for that sort of money, I could ply myself with Red Bull/Pro-Plus and make myself not sleep for a while.
Heading up the study is Dr David Marrow (Played by Liam Neeson), however all is not as it seems. The insomnia study is just a cover for his real research; fear and the perception of such. His boss in unconvinced of the ethical validity of tricking people under false pretences to become David’s test subjects, but as he says; “you don’t tell rats that they’re in a maze”, which is a charming way to think about your fellow human beings. Maybe somebody should be studying him.
Lovely House. Shame About The Film.
The study is being held at a place called Hill House, an (all together now) isolated massive spooky mansion. Are these just dotted all over the Americas like Burger Kings? Nell is the first to arrive and is interrupted in her fondling of the gate lock by the estate’s caretaker, Mr Dudley, (played by Bruce Dern), who witters on about fences for a bit, then lets her in. And seeing the car Nell’s driving, which I assume is the one her sister wanted to ‘gift’ her, I can see why she was so pissed; it’s straight out of the Del Boy School for automobiles. Nell knocks on the door of the imposing Hill House, and when she receives no answer she lets herself in. She follows a strange noise to the kitchen where she meets Mrs Dudley (played by Marian Seldes), a daunting woman who shows Nell up to her room, the Red Room. Mrs Dudley tells Nell that Dr Marrow’s group are the first to stay there since Mr Crain died. I assume he is the house’s last owner, and also Wolverine’s grandfather, if the portrait of him on the staircase is anything to go by. Nell gaspingly admires the house’s garish interiors. The outside of the house looked fine, dandy and creepy, but the inside is just too overdone; statues, chandeliers, drapes, portraits, ornaments – it’s too crowded with chintzy tat, it could be Liberace’s holiday home. Mrs Dudley is well mysterious, and repetitive; she leaves, after dark, she won’t stay, after dark, the gate is locked, after dark, no one in town will come near the house, after dark she gloomily intones. We get it Mrs Dudley, the house is haunted and the town is full of scaredy cats.
Next we meet Theo (played by Catherine Zeta Jones); a sexy, vivacious artist, who has boyfriends and girlfriends. CLANG! That’s the sound of a bisexuality anvil being dropped, unlike the whisper of suggestion in the original. Theo flirts with the uncomfortable Nell, she also calls her a blank canvas, which is quite the back handed compliment. In case the wonderful subtlety of Theo’s earlier lines were missed by anyone in the cheap seats, she mentions girlfriends again. When Nell says she has a little apartment of her own, with a flower garden and a view of the sea Theo looks at her with barely disguised pity.
What Would Pa Larkin Say?
They explore the rest of the house. They stop to look at a giant door depicting purgatory; children trying to get to heaven being stopped by demons. Gosh, I wonder if this will turn out to be important later on? They also stop off in a funfair room with a revolving floor and a stream with books as stepping stones. What is this? A ghost invested house or fucking Alton Towers? They (literally) run into our next insomniac, Luke (played by Owen Wilson). He immediately starts quizzing them on their sleep patterns and tries to flirt with Theo in the Owen Wilson squinty eyed way that he specialises in. Dr David Marrow is next to arrive, with his assistant Mary (played by Alix Koromzay) and Todd (played by Todd Hackett), another study subject. That night the group have dinner. Theo can’t seem to go a full minute without mentioning shagging, Luke rambles on about late night TV and it’s all quite jovial until Nell brings the party atmosphere crashing to a grinding halt by talking about her depressing life and dead mother; she spent all her life caring for her and now she’s dead she still hears the banging on her cane on the walls, as she used to in life to summon Nell.
After dinner the guests gather in the drawing room and Dr Marrow hands out various tests and rules. He then tells the story of Hill House; Hugh Crain was the richest man in town, he married Renee, the prettiest girl in town, and he built the most kick ass house in town (I’m paraphrasing). What he wanted most of all was to fill his house with the laughter of children. However, all their children died at birth and then his wife died, and Crain became a total recluse, just adding more and more to his massive, overblown house. Sometimes the townsfolk say you can hear the sounds of children laughing coming from the house. The way they talk about the townsfolk it’s as if they’re all backwards, crucifix clutching peasants from the old Hammer Horror films. Mary isn’t convinced this is the whole story though, she feels there is more to it. As she speaks one of the piano wires taunts itself and snaps, striking her in the face. So that’s Mary out of the picture then. As her and Todd (and Todd too, bye you guys, you were totally useless to the entire film) drive away Dr Marrow fills Luke in on a twist in the tale of Mr Crain, that Luke immediately tells the girls; Renee killed herself, possibly driven to it by her husband. Before turning in for the night Dr Marrow records his findings for the day; Nell was most susceptible to the love story of Mr Crain and his wife, while Luke proved himself to be the blabbermouth Dr Marrow knew him to be and passed on the suicide part of the story to the girls; now the ghostly tricks Dr Marrow have planned should hit their targets. Oh, and Mary was nearly mutilated, he tosses in as an afterthought.
That night, Theo flirts with Nell some more. Basically if her character was being played by a male actor everyone would be shouting ‘sexual harassment!’ at the screen. While Nell tries to sleep, she stares at the carvings of the children’s heads that are all over her room, including the bed frame itself. I personally can’t think of anything less probable to give one a good night’s sleep than sinister as fuck wooden children’s heads all around me. Nell starts when the heads all seem to turn their heads and look at her. That would be my cue to switch to another room immediately, only stopping to set fire to the aforementioned sinister as fuck wooden children’s heads. Nell is woken up by banging on the walls. Automatically, she gets out of bed, thinking it’s her mother. The banging increases in volume, and is coming from all around the room. She hears Theo calling for her and goes to join her in her room. The room bangs and vibrates. The room becomes very cold and both women are struck down with a severe case of terrible CGI icy breath. The banging then leaves Theo’s room and goes into Nell’s. Luke turns up, having been wandering the corridors unable to sleep, he checks Theo’s room, and then Nell’s but finds nothing untoward. They all go downstairs to the kitchen, where Luke turns the water on, thinking the banging noises were the sounds of the old pipes. Dr Marrow, also roused, claims he didn’t hear anything. The group go back to bed. Nell is accosted by more terrible, terrible CGI during the night. The ghostly form of a child crawls into her bed and entreats Nell to ‘find them’, she is seems to be actually pleased by these developments, strange woman.
Man Alive Those Things Are Horrible.
The next day Nell is filling in some of the tests Dr Marrow has given them when Luke joins her, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one to find all the carvings of children creepy, even if it is Owen Wilson agreeing with me. He thinks the story of kind children-loving Mr Crain is a load of rubbish, and I think he may be proven right on this also. As Nell works the chain mail curtain starts moving and then a ghost of lion head or something equally daft comes out of the fireplace, scaring Nell. She screams for the others and Luke and Dr Marrow investigate. A giant lion’s head, a flue, comes swinging out of nowhere, nearly crushing Luke. Nell is convinced that she saw something else, but the others think it was the flue. Luke, shaken by his experience, goes off. He sees something and calls the others over to come and take a look. The words ‘Welcome Home Eleanor’ have been painted in giant letters in bright red paint over the portrait of Mr Crain. Everyone denies writing it and accuses the others of doing it.
If Willy Wonka Did A Side-Line In Hotels, They’d Probably Look Like This.
Dr Marrow takes Nell to the greenhouse. Despite being enraged about 30 seconds ago she gets over the ‘welcome home’ thing remarkably quickly. She says to Dr Marrow that she always wanted adventure, but thought adventures were for soldiers and the like. Don’t think if you asked many soldiers they’d describe what they do as an adventure. She also says she can be a victim or a volunteer, and she’s choosing the latter. Wouldn’t being a general non-victim be better than that though? She’s still drawn to all the creepy child statues and is generally starting to really annoy me, which isn’t a great quality for a main character.
Nell sees tiny red footprints on her bedroom floor and hears voices calling to her. She follows the footprints, which leads to a bookcase with a hidden panel to reveal a secret passage. It leads to an abandoned study, with another bad CGI child ghost in it. She starts reading a book called Concord. Instead of being about really fast aeroplanes it is instead lists of names from ye olde days. Some of the names are crossed out and marked with a cross, the ages written next to these names indicate lots of dead children, who is seemed, having suffered the tragedy of early death, are still suffering by being portrayed as ghastly CGI. She goes and wakes up Theo to show her the book. Theo isn’t interested, or believing, and tells Nell to go to bed. While Nell brushes her hair the ghosts start playing with it. I guess this is meant to be playful and affectionate, but if it were me I would be straight out the front door, leaving the phantom brats to their fates. But then again, I hate having my hair played with.
The next day Nell searches for Dr Marrow, she finds his Dictaphone and listens to it; essentially Dr Marrow thinks she’s a delusional head-case, apart from he puts it on more sciencey terms. Theo and Luke are in the greenhouse, Luke is wise to Dr Marrow’s plan of making them think it’s an insomnia study, but is in reality something different, and theorises Dr Marrow is behind all the activity they have experienced. Nell joins them and tells them that it is the house that is behind all the activity, not Dr Marrow. As they look at her in concern Nell sees the apparition of a hanging woman and flees. Theo and Luke see nothing. Nell goes back to the hidden study and rifles through all the books there. She finds an old photo album, filled with photos of Mr Crain and someone called Carolyn, who Nell surmises is his second wife. Now exactly did she know there was a second wife? As she turns through the pages the pictures of Carolyn turn into a flip book as the figure in the photograph move and points towards the fireplace where Nell had her unsettling experience earlier.
She goes to the fireplace and opens the trapdoor in the floor; she pokes about a bit into the dust and unearths a skeleton. Freaked, she bolts away and the doors slam shut. Once again, the voices of the children call to her and she follows them. They lead her to a small, child sized door set into a wall. She tries to open it but can’t. It also smells bad apparently. As she tries to open it another terrible act of CGI befalls her (she is having no luck in that department) as a giant hand reaches through the door to get her (it looks as stupid as it sounds, and it’s only going to get stupider, fair warning folks). She runs away to find the others. She tells them her theory (although technically the credit should go to Luke, as he said something very similar ages ago); that Crain took the children from the mills he owned but wouldn’t let them leave, and they died here. His second wife, Carolyn, found out about his secret and ran away. Nice of her to tell the fucking police or something like. His spirit is still in the house and wants Nell.
I Can Totally See This Guy As A Kindly Child Lover, Can’t You?
Dr Marrow confesses to the group that the insomnia study was just a cover story for his real research into fear. He made the whole thing up and the test subjects picked up on the clues they were supposed to and took it from there. Oddly enough, the group aren’t cool with this, especially given Nell’s now catatonic state. Theo shouts at Dr Marrow, and slaps him. He goes to investigate the fireplace where Nell says she saw the bones. He doesn’t try very hard, gives up after a whole 17 seconds of looking. Theo puts Nell to bed and goes to get her some tea. Once alone, the room gets very cold again and a black shadowy figure enters the room, looking at it, it may by the ghost of Cthulhu, which is a hundred times cooler than anything we have seen thus far. After hinting at this excellence the film takes the worse possible route; literally showing the house coming alive, literally. As in cartoon awfulness that wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney’s Beauty and the Beast video game for the Sega Mega Drive.
Scared (How? How could anyone possibly be scared by that?) Nell jumps out of bed, when she turns the lights on, the room returns to normal. Sort of. The window contorts into a scary face, Nell throws something at it screaming ‘I won’t let you hurt a child’ with all the conviction of a table. The window shatters outwards, then inwards, and Nell is covered with shards of glass. She bolts from the room, and is followed by a giant running on the roof or something, there’s huge thumping noises anyway. She looks in some mirrors and sees her face transforming before her eyes. She runs through various rooms in the house until she gets to the merry go round room. She cries out variations on the theme of ‘what do you want with me?’ and is generally utterly pathetic and irritating in equal measure. She sees another version of herself in one of the mirrored walls, the other her smiles, and then develops a baby bump. Nell runs again. Another of the nauseating fucking ghost children turns up, moaning about Nell helping them, but not telling her what she needs to do, just going on about the door. She’s already been to the bloody door, how about telling her how to open it for Christ’s sake?
Theo has gathered the others and they are looking for Nell. They find her in the greenhouse, on a rickety platform high above them, planning to kill herself I think, and I’m finding it hard to care. Dr Marrow climbs the also rickety stairs but they break around him, the ghost unscrews the nails holding the thing together. Why don’t the kid ghosts stop this? Unless they are doing it, in which case they are nasty little fuckers. The stairs collapse, but Nell comes to her minimal senses enough to help save Dr Marrow, who persuades her to leave the platform before she can hurt herself.
I Wouldn’t Trust Her Liam Neeson, She’s A Loon. I’d Sooner Trust Gravity.
Brilliantly, they put Nell back into the Red Room where she has suffered all sorts of trauma up until now (how many bedrooms must this place have?). Dr Marrow says they can’t get to hospital until the morning when the Dudley’s come and unlock the gate. But the gates were unlocked when Mary went to the hospital that first night weren’t they? Which was after dark, so the Dudley’s had gone home, ergo Dr Marrow must have a key. He could end this nightmare of a travesty of a film right now if only he had more than one brain cell. They agree that Nell can’t be left alone at night and Luke says he’ll take first watch. Dr Marrow goes back to the greenhouse to speak into his Dictaphone some more, the reactions to fear are just what he wants, but he regrets it all. As he goes to leave the giant stone statue in the pond grabs him and drags him underwater, spurting blood out of its mouth. He gets free, and if this were latter day Liam Neeson he would have punched the statue to death.
Keeping watch is a job that Luke proves to be uniformly bad at, as Nell continues to be tortured by the house. Her room contorts and destroys itself around her, the there for no possible reason spiky things hanging over her bed pin her to it. An evil face appears through the ceiling and appalling CGI hands come through to grab her. The others desperately try to break down the door; they eventually succeed and see the carnage that the ghost has wrought. They manage to free Nell from her bed and go to leave the house. Even though they see the giant evil hands they basically shrug and don’t react. They leave the house. Bloody finally. Why didn’t they just wait in one of their cars for the night? As Luke tries to break the lock to the gate with a spade, Nell asks Dr Marrow why he chose her to go to the house, why he rang and told her to look in the newspaper to see the ad. He denies doing any such thing. Oh God, another house where it can do stupid things in the outside world, this time make phone calls eh? The lock is unyielding, so Luke uses Nell’s car to try and smash it open. It doesn’t work; a spikey emblem falls off the gate and onto the car, trapping Luke inside. As the others try to free him Nell hears the house calling to her again, all the lights go on. By the time the others have freed Luke she has gone back into the house.
Just *Look* At Owen Wilson’s Facial Expression, Is That His “I’m Acting” Face?
They find Nell in the little room she couldn’t get into before. They can enter it now though. How? Who the fuck cares? Nell is in a little bedroom which is the exact replica of her mother’s. She tells the others that the children need her, that this is the room where Carolyn had her baby and then ran away. She is Carolyn’s Great-Great Granddaughter and this is where she belongs. She must stay here with the children. The others try to talk her out of it, to no avail. But she will see them out of the house. They try to leave, but the house won’t let them, all the doors shut. They try breaking the windows but the house won’t let them. Hey, guys, try the fucking greenhouse, it’s all glass, and there are no bars on the windows. Idiots. Luke defaces a portrait of Crain. He gets pulled towards the fireplace by a rug, despite having all the time in the world to get off it he doesn’t and is thrown into the fireplace and decapitated by the giant lion flue, with a hilarious squelch sound effect for good measure. “Oh no” says Nell, and I swear a line has never been delivered flatter and with less emotion. I know he was Owen Wilson being his Owen Wilsoniest, but have a heart.
The house continues to attack them, they run up the stairs and the portrait of Crain falls over, nearly crushing them. Nell tells Dr Marrow and Theo to run and hide, that Crain liked to play hide and seek with the children. But they don’t want to be found so what good would hiding do exactly? A statue of a griffin comes to life and starts attacking them. Nell fends it off with a stick, and this actually works. It’s a metal statue, it can’t feel pain. What the very fuck? Theo and Dr Marrow run and then Nell follows them she finds herself at a dead end with a portrait of Carolyn looking over her. Carolyn in the portrait is wearing the very same necklace as Nell, which proves her crackpot theory I guess. It doesn’t explain however, how Nell came to any of these conclusions.
Nell wanders through the house calling for Hugh Crain, who eventually obliges, bursting from his portrait in a massive black of (what else?) bad CGI. He roars and bellows and it’s as about as threatening as a baked potato. Theo and Dr Marrow show up, but Nell stands in front of them, telling Crain ghost that he will not have them. The house goes apeshit, all the statues come alive and so on. Nell goes on and on about the children again. And that it’s all about family, it’s always been about family. Really? Has it? I thought it was about Crain being a massive dickhead who kidnapped children for slave labour. Shows what I know. She leads him to the doors of purgatory and the statues from that door reach out and grab ghost Crain and pull him into the door. “Purgatory’s over, now it’s time for you to go to hell”. What an asinine line, not even worthy of Arnie in the 1990s. The children’s spirits are free, and Nell’s spirit (she died in order to save them) joins them and they all go to heaven. What the fuck ever. (Although nicely, when Theo and Dr Marrow go to check Nell’s pulse, you can see Liam Neeson leaning on one of the ‘stone’ pillars, which bends under his hand like the rubber it’s made out of).
Strained Jesus Analogy? Check. Statues Copping A Feel? Check and Double Check.
The caretakers come the next morning to unlock the gates, and find Nell’s care crashed into the gates, and only Theo and Dr Marrow still alive. ‘Did you find your answers?’ sneers Mr Dudley. Bet he won’t be so chipper when he goes inside and sees what an utter wreck the house is. We’re talking that old Yellow Pages advert levels of destruction here. Going to take more than some Cillit Bang to sort that lot out. Some terrible sub-circus music plays us out.
And how apt, because what a fucking circus that was. Completely and utterly woeful. While at least House on Haunted Hill 1999 and Thir13en Ghosts were essentially bad films, they had at least fun moments, some good characters, interesting visuals and vaguely palatable story lines. Everything here is just a mess. Liam Neeson, pre career renaissance as a hard as nails older bloke who fights wolves, tries his hardest but the script is just so dreadful. Nell’s simpering child-like voice got completely on my wick, as did the stupid child ghosts. While I railed against Thir13en Ghosts for its ‘the power of love save the day’ ending, here it is a million times worse, with Nell being put on par with fucking Jesus or something. And the CGI, oh dear lord, the CGI. At least the black smog at the end of House on Haunted Hill 1999 only came in at the end, and Thir13en Ghosts had some great practical make up effects, here we had to suffer every excruciating pixel all the way through the far too long running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes. I can’t even see this passing muster in 1999, when the film was made. The house actually looks very cool from the outside, but the interior set is just chock full with too much ridiculousness, it really did remind me of the castle in Beauty and the Beast, and I didn’t mind it there, because that’s a fucking cartoon. I’m finding it hard to believe that the makers of this film even saw the original, and if they did, they have no idea of what made it such a powerful film in the first place; suggestion, subtlety, not spoon feeding every mundane detail to the audience and no Godamm annoying ghost children. Call me callous if you want, but I just didn’t give a single solitary fuck about them, or their plight, they were way, way too annoying. Owen Wilson’s ‘comedy’ lines fell completely flat. Catherine Zeta Jones gives her best sexy pout and she’s good at that but she had no character beyond ‘sexy’ and ‘pout’. I had sympathy for Nell at the beginning when her family were being total bastards to her, but as soon as we got to the house all that just evaporated. Lilli Tomlin, while again hampered by the truly awful script, had some good moments and then other moments where she’s just really bad, like Owen Wilson’s death scene, and doesn’t seem to give a shit (hard to blame her really). So, I guess if you’re a fan of watching a film whilst cringing in contact embarrassment for everyone involved in the production then The Haunting 1999 is absolutely the film for you. If, however, you have anything resembling even a modicum of taste, avoid at all and any costs.
Well, I guess that damning review will lead to no surprises as to which is the worst when I do my write up and compare/contrast of all three films next time. But please do join me anyway, because otherwise I’m just another lone nut on the internet speaking to hyper-space.
PS: I almost went through a whole review without mentioning Geoffrey Rush. What was I thinking? Blinded by rage probably. He’s still hot, and amazing. Peace out!