Ever since I was a kid, I have been intrigued with the concept of haunted houses. Some of the most horrifying aspects of a solid haunted house story are its relatability and subtle terror- the feeling that you are being watched, hearing bumps in the night, and an obscure, often forlorn or brutal history. Not to mention rad decor that usually involves beautiful yet decrepit antique furniture, and a mutilated framework that can’t seem to stay quiet with its sinister secrets.
So, when 1999 rolled around and Jan de Bont’s remake of The Haunting hit theaters, my ghoulish fangirl tendencies skyrocketed since I was a lover of Robert Wise’s 1963 original film by the same title, and Shirley Jackson’s work in general. To my dismay, what ensued on-screen was a saturated CG experience that was so far from scary, and deviated so greatly from the original storyline, that I wanted to dramatically rip out my butterfly hair clips in cinematic shame. However, despite the foolish flaws throughout this film (and there are several) what kept my attention was the gorgeous set design that I secretly wished I could visit. Literally the only redeeming factor, the ornate production design is one to appreciate and the reason why I am here to say something nice.
Jan de Bont is an established cinematographer who transitioned into directing with blockbusters like Speed and Twister. When scouting film locations for his adaptation of the Shirley Jackson inspired story, The Haunting of Hill House, eyes were set on the UK despite the film being set in the States - specifically in New England. Now, I have been to Jennings Hall in Vermont, which served as the inspiration for Jackson to write her novel. I also road tripped throughout the area exploring historic, haunted houses (yes, I am that kind of cinephile and horror nerd). I can tell you they look nothing like the gaudy Harlaxton Manor located in Lincolnshire, England, which was used for exterior shots of Hill House and the billiard room scenes. Located down the road in the Lincolnshire hillside, Belvoir Castle was also used as a film location, specifically for the kitchen scenes. Since this film is overly flamboyant, it was enjoyable to see simple aerial shots of such beautiful architecture, even if it didn’t make sense within the setting of the story.
Under Production Designer Eugenio Zanetti’s direction, the majority of interior shots were constructed and filmed on a dome-shaped soundstage in Florida and California. With de Bont’s desire to have the characters feel lost both within the house and themselves, the set needed to reflect an enormous effect as if the cast were being swallowed in its rage. As a result, they constructed a massive great hall 15,000 square feet big and 45 feet tall. Another over-the-top fabrication was the 19-foot-tall carved doors that randomly led to the gates of Hell which was inspired by the artwork of Rodin.
Despite Hill House being built in the Victorian era, Zanetti chose to incorporate a creepy concoction of Moroccan, Indian, Gothic, Neo Classical, Romanesque, and Baroque influences into its design. Since the house is meant to be a character in and of itself, the diverse design could be meant to reflect the complexities of the human psyche and realms of the afterlife, but that’s a stretch. Its inspiration could just as easily been conceptualized from a recreational drug use session, a massive budget, and/or an affinity for spending hours reading world art history textbooks. However, the production design team's attention to detail and spectacular craftsmanship paid off regardless of their inspirational origin.
Highlights of the house include a library that looks like it belongs in Disney’s Haunted Mansion, a mirror room reminiscent of a carnival fun house (especially with the musical stylings of composer Jerry Goldsmith chiming in), a greenhouse with so many dead flowers your hellbound heart will flutter, bedrooms that look like they belong to deceased royalty, and a hallway that could be straight out of an HR Giger painting. There are a few nods to the original - the suicide spiral staircase and lion statues - but this new, experimentally zany mixture works in the sense that it’s visually stunning and each room has its own unique flair. The only meaningful design motif in terms of storyline is the wood-carved heads of children littered throughout the film. I feel obligated to mention them given the plot of this film, but this feature was really only meant to unnecessarily fill in plot holes from the original.
While most haunted house films are terrifying in their daily normalcy such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and Paranormal Activity, it is refreshing to have an embellished haunted home with such an enormously ostentatious set design cluttered with period piece props. Bottom line- if you’re looking for true Jackson homage by inducing fear through what can’t be seen and a Hill House whose terror stems from creative camera angles and minimal effects, then stick with Wise’s adaptation. If you’re looking for eye candy and aesthetics that will arouse jealousy amongst both The Munsters and The Addams Family, de Bont’s remake is right up your alley.