BOSTON — Everyone enjoys a lively visit to a haunted house, as long as it's safely contained in a novel or a movie.
This doesn't mean everyone will line up to see Jan De Bont's picture, "The Haunting," which can't quite decide whether it's an out-and-out thriller, a psychological drama, or a systematic demonstration of the latest computer-generated effects. But it should attract big crowds for a weekend or two on the strength of its attractive stars and deliciously spooky setting.
Some literature buffs may also journey to their local multiplexes, drawn by the perennial appeal of Shirley Jackson's original novel "The Haunting of Hill House," first published 40 years ago. Not that director De Bont has much interest in the "beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders" that critic Dorothy Parker praised in Jackson's book.
De Bont specializes in fun-ride movies like "Speed" and "Twister," designed less for quiet shudders than jolting shocks. The DreamWorks team headed by him has wrought huge changes in Jackson's tale, starting with the premise that probably led her to write it. Her sardonic novel is a story of four discontented people haunted by their mistrustful minds. On the screen, "The Haunting" is a story of four discontented people haunted by the audiovisual technologies of a wealthy Hollywood studio.
Liam Neeson plays Dr. Marrow, a psychologist who studies fear. Deciding that shadowy Hill House is the ideal place for an experiment, he lures three strangers there under false pretenses. They think he's researching sleep disorders, and that his discoveries might cure the insomnia that motivated them to answer his phony ad. What he really plans is to scare them silly and study their behaviors.
The movie's biggest mystery is how such a hotshot psychologist could forget that people have ... psychology. From the moment they walk into Hill House, his unwitting subjects start responding to their surroundings and each other in complicated ways that have little to do with clinical graphs. If the movie allowed this to continue, it might have been as unpredictable as Jackson's novel, which takes the complexities of human nature as its abiding interest. But that would deprive the digital-effects department of a chance to show its stuff, so De Bont begins focusing on the book's more externalized aspects, such as the brooding atmosphere of the house.
Even here the picture falls short of Jackson's teeming imagination, paying more attention to a ponderous historical subplot - about a sweatshop operator who exploited children - than to the architecture of the house, whose supernatural qualities are described in the novel with almost mathematical precision, or the personality quirks that cause each character to experience the horror in a subtly different way.
This notwithstanding, the best reason to see "The Haunting" is the sheer sumptuousness of its creepy-crawly set designs. The second-best reason is Lili Taylor, whose sincerity and conviction could make any script come at least partly alive. Owen Wilson also has amusing moments as Marrow's only male subject, and Marian Seldes is wonderful as the gloomy old housekeeper who keeps the gloomy old house.
It's worth a footnote to mention that the movie's producers include Susan Arnold, whose father (Jack Arnold) directed fantasy classics like "Them!" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and Donna Arkoff Roth, whose father (Samuel Z. Arkoff) ran American International Pictures, once a cornucopia of low-budget horror epics. How many chills Hollywood managed to create before computer graphics were ever dreamed of!
*Rated PG-13; contains horror-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society