It amazes me that anyone involved in the making of Jan De Bont’s The Haunting thought they were doing anything that could be classified as remotely ‘scary.’ The film barely deserves its PG-13 rating and quite honestly I’ve seen spookier ghosts in that Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion thing. Now, having said that: I do recommend seeing it for the absolutely stunning, breathtakingly elaborate production design and set artistry. The visuals are so beautiful they really deserve a better film to showcase, but oh well.
Basically silly professor Liam Neeson wants to study fear and it’s effects on people, so he places an ad and soon a few people have agreed to spend a night in gargantuan Hill House manor under the guise of a sleep deprivation experiment. Lili Taylor, who is no stranger to haunted houses now that she headlined The Conjuring, is someone I usually love but her performance here as the lead is grating, weird, shrill, dull, stilted and bizarre just to use a few adjectives. Catherine Zeta Jones fares better as a sassy bisexual babe who relishes line delivery and whose ornately beautiful aura slinks in nicely with that of the baroque estate. Owen Wilson is unfortunately also cast and gets saddled with the weirdo comic relief thing, falling flat in every scene and just coming across as vaguely neurologically damaged. Others fly by in smaller roles including Alix Koromzy, Todd Field, Virginia Madsen, Michael Cavanaugh, Tom Irwin, M.C. Gainey and Bruce Dern as the cranky caretaker.
There’s this half baked plot around the guy that built the place, kid’s souls trapped within and something about Taylor’s character being the reincarnation of his wife, which is a horror motif I’m honestly just so sick of. Really it’s just the cast bumbling about these gorgeous sets while things go bump, and occasionally unforgivably bad CGI giant hands reaching out of walls to give them a spank or two. It’s an unrepentant mess. But like I said before, these are some jaw dropping sets they’ve built, full of ornate detail and embellished craftsmanship, from a house of mirrors built into a carousel to a glass solarium complete with spiral staircases to a water featured corridor with book shaped stepping stones to what has to be the world’s largest walk-in fireplace and so much more. Honestly I’d just put it on with no volume, pull up an atmospheric playlist on Spotify and enjoy it sans dialogue or even it’s own score, to saturate yourself in the visual aspect.
I’ve always thought of this as the Oliver Stone Movie that the man never made. It has the sordid, excessive sleaziness of U Turn, and the studious inquisition into true crime and intriguing Americana that he showed us in JFK. Both films explore the violence and ugliness that peppers American history in different ways, the brash and the academic which often exist in opposite poles colliding in Wonderland, a wholeheartedly nasty account of a stomach churning multiple murder involving one of the most infamous porn stars who ever lived, John Holmes (Val Kilmer). I don’t know what the real Holmes was like (besides tell rumours of his anaconda cock), but the version we see here is a sniveling, unrepentant scumbag who is very hard to empathize with unless you flip the nihilism switch on in your brain and lose yourself in it. The film follows his association with a group of fellow undesirables, interested only in furthering their own drug habits by any means necessary, legal or otherwise. John is late in bis career and on the cusp of being a washout, his underage girlfriend (Kate Bosworth) pretty much the only friend he has in the world. He spends his days getting involved in all kinds of smutty business, along with a crew of fellow junkies led by loose cannon Josh Lucas, grim biker Dylan McDermott and timid Tim Blake Nelson. When they collectively catch wind of the wealth of one of John’s acquaintances, a dangerous club owning mobster (Eric Bogosian in full psycho mode), the dollar signs swirl in their already dilated pupils. After an ill advised robbery, Bogosian reacts with all the wrath of the Israeli mafia, fuelled by his personal vendetta, brutally slaughtering each and every one of John’s gang, letting him live as a branded snitch. The film is based on notoriously grisly crime scene photos which can be seen online, laying speculation on Holmes’s part in the killings, and spinning a sinfully chaotic, noisy web of pulpy hijinks surrounding the case. The film is told from two different perspectives, a fractured narrative laid down by Kilmer and McDermott in respective and very different summaries of the event. Ted Levine and Franky G. play the two detectives who take it all in and work the case, and the excellent M.C. Gainey plays a veteran ex cop who they bring simply because he’s the only familiar face which skittish Holmes will open up to. This is an ugly, nasty film and I won’t pretend it doesn’t get very gratuitous both in dialogue and action. It goes the extra mile of obscenity and then some in its efforts to make us squirm, but every time I pondered the necessity of such sustained atrocities, I reminded myself that in real life there’s even more of such stuff, and the film is just trying to hit the themes of decay home hard, albeit with a sledgehammer, not a whiffle ball bat in this case. Kilmer is fidgety brilliance as Holmes, a severely damaged dude who hangs onto the last strand of our sympathy by the wounded dog whine in his voice alone. The only time I felt anything for the dude is when he visits his estranged ex wife (a flat out fantastic Lisa Kudrow, cast against type and nailing it) and we see flickers of a dignity in him that’s long since been consumed by darkness. One of his best roles for sure. Watch for further work from Michael Pitt, Louis Lombardi, Janeane Garofalo, Scoot Mcnairy, Christina Applegate, Faizon Love, Chris Ellis, Paris Hilton and Natasha Gregson Warner too. This one is like Boogie Nights, Rashomon and Natural Born Killers tossed in together on spin dry. It’s a wicked concoction, but you’ll need to bring a strong stomach and the foreknowledge that you’re going to be spending two hours with some of the most deplorable human beings this planet has to offer. The silver lining is you get to see it all play out in killer style, smoky and evocative 1970’s cinematography and dedicated thespians branding each scene with their own lunacy. Tough to swallow, but great stuff.
Tony Scott’s the fan is a wild ride with an off the hook turn from Robert De Niro. It’s ranked and regarded as a pretty low notch on Scott’s belt, but it’s hard to compete with his best work. It’s still a sleazy blast and pure Scott, his characters always let, lurid and delightfully pulpy. Sure it falls apart near the end, but until then it’s nasty, delicious fun. De Niro plays Gil, a die hard baseball fan and devout follower of Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), star player for his favourite team. Gil wants Bobby to succeed so badly that he becomes violent, unstable and pretty bonkers. At first it’s obnoxious and amusing, but soon he gets dodgy and dangerous and eventually just out of control. It’s great fun seeing De Niro go bug nuts bit by bit, and he’s always had a wild menace that he like to take down from the shelf and dust off for the occasional performance. Benicio Del Toro does one of his puzzling, indecipherable vocal riffs as a rival player, adding to the weird factor. Ellen Barkin is a sexy sass bomb as Jewal Stern, a mouthy talk show host who sniffs out the controversy in high style. John Leguizamo is always sterling, and classes his scenes up like a pro. Watch for speckled cameos from M.C. Gainey, Brad William Henke, Don S. Davis, Tuesday Knight, Wayne Duvall, Richard Rhiele, John Carrol Lynch, Michael P. Byrne and Chris Mulkey as well, all excellent. Not Scott’s best for sure, but a nicely mean spirited little romp through the psycho stalker fields. Fun stuff.