Every other week Jack Reda, The Script Doctor, tells the powers that be in Hollywood why they should listen to him. You decide if he's right.

  The Haunting

Most audiences are flaky, but one thing they simply can't identify with is flaky characters. If someone is in a situation that would make a normal person say "screw this noise, I'm outta here," it makes audiences crazy when characters don't do likewise.

With the possible exception of Owen Wilson's character (Luke) no one in The Haunting seems to have a shred of common sense, and everyone spends way too much time wandering around Hill House wondering about the creaky sounds and whispering voices. Puh-lease.

The premise is decent enough: Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) wants to conduct a study on fear, and lures three unsuspecting subjects (Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Wilson) to the large and menacing Hill House. He plans to plant a few subtle seeds of dread, and then let the creepy house fill in the rest. What he doesn't realize is that the house IS haunted by the ghost of its creator, and the multitudes of children that were brought there.

The script goes astray when the characters start experiencing the unusual and spooky phenomena, but don't react to it in a realistic way. When Lili Taylor sees a face appear in her pillow case, she doesn't seem to respond at all. When all of the characters see the hands coming out of the walls and reaching for them, none bat an eye. Hello?

Haunted House stories are best when there is a clear reason why the house is haunted in the first place. This generally involves the grisly and wrongful death of one or more former residents. The Haunting never really clearly explains what happened. Did the original owner kidnap kids and take them to the house? Were they killed? Did they grow up or run away? What happened to his first wife?

By this same token, good haunting tales find their resolutions when the mystery is solved, and the "ghosts" can be put to rest. The Haunting gets wrapped up when Lili tells the bad ghost to go to hell. BORING!

Having the plot involve Lili Taylor's relation to the dead owner of the house is complicated, because it doesn't really give the other characters a good reason to be there. On the other hand, having everyone related is what The House On Haunted Hill did, and that movie sucked even worse. I think we have to then go with the concept of "none of the characters are related."

This lets everyone get more involved with solving the mystery. With such a small ensemble, you really need to give everyone a stake, and some action. Reaction alone isn't compelling.

You can stay with the original notion of a study in fear that goes awry. But now you can let everyone in on the puzzles and thrills. There are two forces at work in the house: the one that wants them to figure it out, and the one that doesn't. They can be threatened by the latter, and the former can prevent them from leaving. You can still decapitate Owen Wilson, cuz that was pretty cool. And now the movie might actually be scary.

Jack Reda


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