The Haunting (1999)
Tagline: Ghosts with the Most!
Space, 1999. A runaway chain reaction at the Lunar Nuclear Waste Dump has ripped the Moon from its orbit and sent it careening -- whoops. Wrong story.
Hollywood, 1999. A runaway collision of cash and ambition at Dreamworks Studios spawns a $100-million-plus rip-off of 1963's The Haunting.
This had been a longstanding pet project for Steven Spielberg. The original plan was for Spielberg to direct a script by horror-maven Stephen King, but creative differences eventually put the kibosh on that collaboration. For some reason, Spielberg ultimately chose to only associate himself with the feature as an executive producer.
So first Dreamworks needed to find someone else to helm the project. This would seem to be a tall order. By the time he directed the original film, Robert Wise had already made his mark in a variety of genres: horror, film noir, Westerns (including the Western noir Blood on the Moon), romance, war, drama, science fiction, musicals -- you name it, he'd directed an outstanding example of it. Wise, along with his co-director Jerome Robbins, had just won the "Best Director" Oscar the previous year for a little thing called West Side Story.
Yes, Wise would later direct Star Trek: The Movie, but right now we're talking 1963.
Earlier in his career, Wise worked with Orson Welles, editing such minor cinematic efforts as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He cut his directorial teeth under the tutelage of Val Lewton, who produced a distinctive series of horror films for RKO in the 1940s which despite their shoestring budgets are still considered classics of atmosphere and intelligent scripting. Lewton's theory of horror was that people were more afraid of the unknown than things they could see, a philosophy at least partly born out of the studio's penny-pinching, but one which his directors used to unforgettable effect in pictures such as The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and of course Wise's The Body Snatcher.
Wise intended The Haunting to be an homage to Lewton, showing what could be done when you combined his mentor's notion of horror with a respectable budget. Through his brilliant use of sound effects, sets designed to emphasize the claustrophobic atmosphere and unconventional camera angles and movement, he created a masterpiece of psychological horror that consistently shows up on critics' and viewers' lists of the most terrifying films of all time.
Dreamworks' first choice is Wes Craven, which at least makes some sort of sense. Craven, however, bails on the project shortly after filming starts. So who then is your logical second choice? Who else but the director of the immortal Leonard Part 6: Jan de Bont.
But who then to cast for the pivotal role of Eleanor, a lonely, guilt-ridden, psychologically fragile woman who's spent the majority of her adult life caring for the invalid mother from Hell? The 1963 film featured Julie Harris, one of the finest actors of her generation. True to her Actors Studio training, she totally inhabited the character of “Nell”, using her off-camera depression to give her performance depth and sympathy.
So Lili Taylor is tapped for the part. Who, for all I know, may be the reincarnation of Vivian Leigh, but you sure couldn't prove it by this example of her craft. It may have been the script. It may have been the direction. Or it may be that she started gobbling Valium like Pez candies once she realized what she'd gotten herself into.
Oh, and that "what you can't see is even more frightening" bit? C'mon, this is 1999: You've got CGI and wads of cash. The viewer's going to see everything, dammit. And like it!
From the very first scene, this film wants you to know it's not going to be intimidated. The original began with Eleanor living in a bedroom in her sister and brother-in-law's apartment, some time after the demanding, bed-ridden mother she'd cared for died in a manner which left Nell consumed with guilt.
In this version, though, it's only been a couple of months since Mom shuffled off this mortal coil, and Eleanor is still living in her mother's apartment. She's kept Mom's bedroom just as it was: the bed neatly made, the brass-knob cane her mother would thump on the wall to summon Nell at all hours of the day and night reverently placed upon the cover. The cane which would be a reminder not only of Eleanor's private Hell, but of her guilty secret, when one night, out of weariness and frustration, she refused to get up and see what Mom wanted. And of course that was the time the matriarch chose to kick the bucket.
There's a sampler hung over Mom's bed-shrine, with the motto "A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place." (Foreshadowing!) Although Mom could have had OCD, or she might have been hinting that besides being a cranky invalid she was a stone bigot. Or Nell could have been messing with her head.
Anyway, when the movie begins, Nell's sister and brother-in-law have shown up at Dead Mom's apartment with their obnoxious offspring in tow. In keeping with this film's compulsion to crank everything to 11, instead of a sweetly nasty passive-aggressive, her sister Jane (Virginia Madsen, again type-cast) is a humorless harpy, and her brother-in-law Lou (Tom Irwin) is a loutish jerk. It turns out that Mom designated Lou as her executor, and he and Jane are going to sell the apartment. As a reward for all those years of care, they let Nell have the keys to Mom's 1979 Gremlin. Plus, Jane generously offers Eleanor room and board at their place -- if she'll be their maid and au pair.
Regardless, Eleanor has to vacate the premises, pronto. So, in this movie she's introduced as a flaky weirdo who has to be dynamited out of her creepy little shrine to dear, departed Hell Mom.
After her revolting relations exit the scene, Eleanor answers a mysterious phone call. The caller suggests she should check out the Classifieds. Nell sees an ad from the university, seeking volunteers for a study of sleep disorders.
Nell applies at the university. Cut to Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, doing his customary dead-on impression of a mournful codfish) who's arguing with the head of his department. Turns out that the sleep disorder study is just a cover for sneaky ol' Doc Marrow's fear research. It's absolutely essential for the last chapter in his latest blockbuster, Why People Crap Themselves, the followup to his bestselling Pants-Pissing in the Middle Ages.
The department head isn't all that comfortable with Marrow's proposal, though. He feels that promising the subjects you're going to help -- when you're actually preparing to scare the liver out of them -- is unethical. Doc replies that you don't tell the rats they're in a maze. What a sweet guy.
Cut to Hill House. Nell arrives, and her dialog with the groundskeeper, Mr. Dudley (Bruce Dern) is a repeat of the original. We also get a word-for-word replay of the housekeeper Mrs. Dudley's scene with Nell (you know: "In the night ... in the dark ...") as she shows Nell her palatial bedroom. Nell meets Theo -- Catherine Zeta-Jones -- whose character in this film is a flamboyant dresser, manic, extroverted and enthusiastically bi, not a coolly elegant lesbian.
Clearly, this film isn't about to let anything dissuade it from upping the ante at every turn. So you can also forget about that claustrophobic ambiance: The cavernous interior of Hill House is a bastardized Rococo Revival meets Gothic, with just a dash of Art Deco, and the entire mess seems to be afflicted with a pituitary condition. Hill House must be kind of like the TARDIS, because otherwise there's no way all those gigantic rooms and passages could have been crammed inside that exterior. (And in fact, the interior sets were constructed in the hangar which once housed the Spruce Goose.)
It certainly makes one wonder how Mrs. Dudley keeps these vast spaces so neat and dust-and-cobweb-free, all by herself. Even with the aid of modern appliances and industrial quantities of Pledge.
I also can't help wondering how the Perfesser was able to obtain the use of this enormous mansion for his little experiment in terror. The electricity bill alone on this place must be astronomical; I imagine the rental -- even if there's a Triple-A discount -- must be pretty steep. But then, when it comes to universities funding fear research, we all know the sky's the limit.
Anyway, Nell is entranced by the decor, though Theo succinctly pegs it as "Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters."
There's a typically Brobdingnagian great hall, with tile floor by M. C. Escher. At the top of the grand staircase, where a couple of huge pewter griffins roost, a proportionately over-sized oil portrait of Hugh Crain glowers down at his guests. Old Hugh is a dead ringer for Dick Cheney -- in a fright wig, with muttonchop whiskers -- even down to the trademark snarl. The ground floor also contains a gigantic bronze double door maybe thirty or forty feet high, with a sinister motif worked on it in bold bas-relief. From bottom to top, there are demons, a woman bearing a bunch of children on her back, and above them a figure of Death.
Theo (who claims to be an artist) observes, "You sure don't get this from the Martha Stewart catalog." She suggests it's based on Rodin's 'The Gates of Hell'. (Which would have been a neat trick, considering that piece wasn't displayed until more than half a century after this mansion was supposed to have been built.)
Nell interprets the composition: "It's not just Hell. The children are reaching for Heaven, but their souls are trapped in Purgatory." Then she turns weirdly playful. "And these are the demons, who hold on to your soul as long as they want."
Theo rightly suspects Nell is a major flake. She wants to know if Nell's an artist, too. Nell replies that she isn't -- but she did spend eleven years in Purgatory. (And the cost of living is outrageous.)
There's an inscription on the door: "All Ye Who Stand Before These Doors Shall Be Judged." Theo hastily decides it's time to move on.
They explore the Carnival Fun House wing, which includes a rotating hall of mirrors and a flooded passageway to the library, with stacks of books as stepping-stones. And not a trace of mildew in the place, either. This is the first indisputable evidence of the supernatural.
While exploring, they meet Luke (Owen Wilson) who as far as I can determine was cast for the role because he's basically the Anti-Tamblyn. He's very fond of poly fleece, denim and pastels. Luke does an off-the-cuff but uncomfortably accurate psychiatric diagnosis of Nell -- a technique which in the past has no doubt served him well with the ladies. Theo, however, cuts him off before he can start in on her.
The Perfesser arrives, along with his two assistants, Todd and Mary, both of whom are looking rather queasy about the affair.
Cut to dinner: The Perfesser delivers a short spiel about how they're here for sleep disorder research -- and nothing else. Nosiree. Nothing else. And none of these numbnuts even thinks to ask him why it's being conducted in this enormous gloomy Victorian mansion whose architect was probably a moonlighting carny. (I'm beginning to suspect the Perfesser selected his subjects for sub-normal IQs as well as neuroses.)
Theo opines that there's nothing so odd about insomnia, what with modern life and all the interesting things to do and be done by.
Nell claims she's too boring to have a reason to sleep badly. The Perfesser points out that she said on the questionnaire that she has trouble sleeping. So Nell fills them in about her years of caring for her invalid mother, and the relentless banging on the walls. Mother's dead now, but Nell keeps waking up, thinking she's still hearing Mom thumping away.
(Tragically, this could all have been avoided if someone had simply told her about those newlyweds moving in next door.)
The Perfesser assures her he's here to help.
After dinner, they settle down in the billiard room. Once they're all sitting comfortably, the Perfesser tells them the story of Hugh Crain: He was a fabulously wealthy mill-owner, back in the mid-1800s. All the children he fathered were stillborn, and after his wife passed away, he became a reclusive eccentric who kept adding on to the mansion. And at night, the locals claimed you could hear the sounds of children emanating from Hill House.
(If only they'd all been sitting around a campfire and the Perfesser had stuck a flashlight under his chin, that would have been really scary! Then he could have told the one about the Hook-Man.)
Picking up her cue, the Perfesser's assistant Mary says she thinks there's something more to the story. She can feel it, all around her. As she's roaming around the room gassing away, we see a peg on the clavichord Mary was playing just a few moments ago turning by itself, tightening the string to the breaking point. Mary says it's in the walls and the furniture, walks up to the clavichord, says it's in this, and plucks idly at the strings. The over-tightened one snaps: it slices her face and almost takes out her left eye. (A similar incident back in the 18th Century was the inspiration for Johann "Cyclops" Fischbach's famous composition: "The Ill-Tempered Clavichord".)
Nell demonstrates a recommended first aid technique for an injured eye, if you happen to have a clean shot glass handy. So if you paid to watch this movie, and have stuck with it this far, you can now reassure yourself that your hard-earned money wasn't entirely wasted.
Mary's packed off to the hospital, accompanied by Todd. The Perfesser wants them to return as soon as possible to help with the experiment. This guy is all heart.
After his assistants' departure, the Perfesser admits to Luke there's more to the story of Hugh Crain than he told them. But he wants Luke to be a mensch and not let the womenfolk in on it, as it might disturb them.
Luke of course immediately seeks out Theo and Nell and spills the beans: Hugh's wife -- Rene, the village beauty -- didn't just die, she killed herself. How, the Perfesser wouldn't say. It also turns out there was some nasty gossip about old Hugh. And he had a second wife, Caroline, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Alone in his room, The Perfesser dictates his notes. As anyone will have guessed by this point, he deliberately fed the new information to Luke, knowing he'd blab it to the girls at the first opportunity. And he says the story of Hugh Crain is a fiction, all part of his research.
Meanwhile, Luke is wandering the halls, while Nell and Theo prepare for bed. Nell's Emperor-size bed is just the thing for an insomniac, what with those big wooden spikes in the canopy, and the kiddie sculptures in the back panel staring down at you. Nell is strangely attracted to the ghoulish mantelpiece above her fireplace, which also has a carved row of child's heads -- henceforth collectively known as the "Woody Kids" -- jutting from it like a bunch of hunting trophies.
Like I said, this place must be hellish to dust. Maybe Mrs. Dudley borrows the leaf-blower.
Nell turns in. Close-up of the Woody Kids.
Do I really need to go into detail about the total botch a film which prides itself on being “A Funhouse of Shrieks and Screams!” makes of that first terrifying manifestation in the original? You know, when the ghostly pounding wakes Nell and for a moment she thinks it's her mother banging on the wall? Anyway, once that's over, everybody gathers in the kitchen for a late-night snack. They all agree it was probably the plumbing.
Nell returns to her bedroom. As she's dropping off to sleep, she's visited by the invisible apparition of a young girl, who slides up beside her between the sheets, and whispers in her ear: "Find us, Eleanor." No doubt the little creep is well aware that phantoms have a huge advantage in a game of hide-and-seek.
Next morning, Nell's in the great hall by herself, busy filling out a questionnaire, when she's spooked by something rattling the chains of a firescreen drawn across the megalodon-size maw of that baronial fireplace. More time is chewed up as Nell and the others investigate it. Suddenly, a lever with what must be about a quarter-ton of brass lion's head on the end of it comes swinging down out of nowhere and nearly pulverizes Luke.
After that, they discover the writing on the wall, up at the top of the grand staircase. In the 1963 film, the words were "Help Eleanor come home", but in this version, it's "Welcome home Eleanor". (Ambiguity? We don' need no steenking ambiguity!) And her name is slapped across the big canvas of Hugh Crain. Not in chalk this time, but in something that looks like fresh blood, applied with an eight-inch paintbrush.
Once again, we get almost the exact same dialog as the original. The only problem is, when Theo cattily accuses Nell of having done it herself for the attention, it makes little sense. Partly because the actress portraying Nell has so far come across not as high-strung and emotionally needy, but just kind of disconnected from reality. And just exactly where was she supposed to have gotten hold of a gallon of blood or red paint or whatever and a brush? Not to mention that 30-foot ladder she would have needed to reach up there. Did she hide them in her luggage?
No one appears to notice that Hugh now wears a skull face, and they miss the crimson footprints -- apparently left by a bare-footed child -- leading away from the graffiti. Maybe the ghost kid should have tried big fluorescent arrows. Even then, the odds that this bunch of twits would have picked up on it aren't encouraging.
When Nell and The Perfesser are alone, she whines about everyone believing she's responsible for the writing. He replies that he thinks she's a sensitive woman and people have taken advantage of her. (Not exactly the most ringing denial I've ever heard.)
He shows her the conservatory, which has been built to the same ludicrously overblown scale as the rest of Hill House. Someone with a real brown thumb has been at work here, but Nell thinks it's beautiful. She sees some potted violets on a workbench next to the pool with a giant statue taking a bath in it. Nell concludes someone must have died here, because of the violets.
You know, I always thought there was something suspicious about the florist's down the street ...
Instead of the sinister family group which was in the original film, here there's a statue of a woman holding an infant in her arms, surrounded by a circle of chubby tots. This is also where the builder stuck the spiral staircase. Except, in this remake's fierce determination to one-up the original, it's a double helix staircase. Gosh. So … Hill House is like a giant amoeba, and the conservatory is its nucleus and this is its DNA? Although, come to think of it, “amorphous blob” is a fairly apt description for this story.
Yet again, Nell is moved to tell everyone how much at home she feels here. She does this a lot, far more than her character did in the original. The scriptwriters obviously think we're all a bit thick, so we'll need these frequent reminders.
De Bont sure isn't taking any chances with the beginning of the next scene, either, so we hear spooky noises and see long shots of the mansion's exterior, then of empty halls, and then the big portrait of Hugh Crain. Close-up of the Death's head superimposed on Hugh's face. This director seems so thoroughly enamored of the William Castle school of film-making, it's a wonder he didn't underscore these important moments with the "Horror Horn" or the "Fear Flasher".
The door to Nell's bedroom creaks open, and the POV slowly glides up to a foot peeping from underneath the quilt. Nell starts awake. She hears a spectral child calling her name again. This time, she notices the bloody footprints. She follows them out of her bedroom and down to the library. The prints lead up to a bookcase, and stop. Nell immediately discovers the biggest haunted house cliche yet, a concealed passage behind the bookcase.
She's found Hugh's secret study. The voice tells her to look in the ledger on his desk. The ledger records the names, ages and occupations of workers in old Hugh's satanic mills. A suspiciously high number of child laborers have had their entries crossed out.
She hurries back upstairs and informs Theo about her discovery, but Theo's not interested. She wants to get to sleep. (You know, I'm really not buying the insomnia, or the same-sex attraction, or pretty much anything else about this character.) Nell returns to her room. She tells the ghost kids she's listening, but gets freaked out when phantom girl tries to braid her hair.
Next morning: Nell wants to show the ledger to the Perfesser. She finds the tape recorder he's been using to dictate his notes, and hears some very unflattering things about herself. So much for that cover story.
Meanwhile, Luke and Theo are in the conservatory. Luke's finally tumbled to the Perfesser's little deception, and now he's trying to convince Theo. Nell finds them, and tells them the Perfesser's not responsible for the supernatural goings-on. Then she looks up and sees an apparition: the corpse of Hugh's first wife, Rene, dangling from the catwalk at the top of the double-spiral staircase. Only she can see it, of course.
Nell tears back down to the secret study. Looking for proof, she finds one of those flip-books -- animated with photos instead of drawings -- in which Hugh's second wife, Caroline, raises her arm and points at the big fireplace.
Returning to the fireplace, she investigates the ash pit, and -- dum dum dum -- finds a skeleton. Which sits up and grabs at her.
Nell screams and slams the cover shut. She hears a child's disembodied voice again, and runs toward a door, shouting "I'll help you! I'll help you!". Then, just before she reaches the brass-studded portal, recoils saying "What's that smell?"
(A less-resourceful director might have had Ms. Taylor convey this by her expression or body language. You have to admire this film's unswerving dedication to making one-hundred-percent certain you chumps in the audience don't miss a single important detail.)
The door is flanked by twin statues that point at each other -- probably because they knew they couldn't blame it on the dog. Nell hurls herself at the door, but it won't open. Then it morphs into a giant hand which rudely pushes her away. Instead of slapping her silly, which is something I think by this point we all would have been mightily tempted to do.
Notice that once again the movie has taken a uniquely terrifying element from the original -- that bit where the door to Nell's bedroom bulges inward from the pressure of some unseen, horrible thing outside -- and, through the miracle of computer-generated effects, gone EXTREEEEEEME!!! with it. From this point on, we'll be treated to lots and lots of bulges that turn into scary stuff, and animated household furnishings.
Nell scampers off. She finds the others and fills them in: "He killed them. The children from the mills! It's just like you said: he wanted to fill the house with the sounds of children. He took them from his mills and brought them here. but he wouldn't let them go. He would never let them go. And I found the skulls, just like Caroline did."
Besides the remarkable fact that no one's cleaned out that ash pit in almost a century-and-a-half, you have to marvel at the sort of thing these titans of industry could get away with, back in the day. Especially when staffing your average humongous mansion required dozens of servants and lackeys, at least some of whom should have noticed that the Master was kidnapping children and disposing of their corpses in the fireplace.
Her companions are skeptical. Nell becomes even more hysterical, claiming Hugh wants her now. "He filled the house with children, but he turned into a monster!" (Sort of a Gilded Age Michael Jackson, I guess.) "And they're all locked together and he won't let them go."
Dr. Marrow finally fesses up about his fear study. He swears that the Hugh Crain story is an unmitigated fabrication.
But Nell won't hear of it. Luke helps Nell out of the room. Theo rips the Perfesser a new one for driving Nell into a nervous breakdown. The Perfesser gets all defensive, claiming he's doing this for a good purpose -- the royalties on his next book. After Theo leaves, he decides to investigate the ash pit, but the cover won't open. "What am I doing?" he asks, in a poignant summing-up of this career choice.
Cut to Theo tucking Nell in. Promising she's going to get her new friend a nice cup of tea, what does she do as she exits the bedchamber but turn out the lights? What could possibly go wrong with leaving someone who's (theoretically, anyway) scared out of her wits, apparently hallucinating and on the verge of a mental breakdown, alone in the dark, in a big, empty room?
As soon as Theo closes the door the spook show begins. This time a couple of squid-like shadows ooze in through a window and flit across the ceiling. Then the tops of a pair of gothic arches turn into eyes, with red, glaring pupils. The Woody Kids on the mantelpiece are aghast.
Nell goes floor-diving. Then, in what appears an afterthought, cries out "Who's holding my hand?" Which might have been frightening if there had been the slightest fucking indication beforehand that Nell thought she was holding someone's hand. The eyes turn back into plain old gothic arches, but now the unnatural frost on the window is playing tricks: we see Hugh's animated face in the frost. He snarls soundlessly. The Woody Kids are even more terrified.
Nell shouts "No! I won't let you hurt the children!" and hurls a heavy object through the window. But the haunted window implodes inward, driving Nell from the room in a spectacular hail of shards which miraculously don't slice her to ribbons, or even cut her bare feet. Hugh certainly showed uncommon forethought in having safety glass installed in his windows -- almost half a century before it was invented. As she sprints down the hall, the arches above her crack and crumble.
Theo, bearing a tea tray, enters Nell's recently vacated bedroom. Sensing something is wrong, she runs out, calling for Luke and the Perfesser.
Back to Nell, who's chased through the flooded library and past several funhouse mirrors. "No!" she shouts at her distorted reflections, "That's not me!" I think she's missed the point of this attraction ...
Then she runs into the rotating hall of mirrors. (Remember that?) "What do you want with me?" she demands, plaintively. "Who am I? What are you trying to tell me?"
She spies herself in another mirror. But this reflection develops an instant pregnancy, an absurd effect that has her belly inflating like a party balloon on a helium tank. The image smiles at her and says "Welcome home, Eleanor."
"No!" cries Eleanor, and takes to her heels again. This may not be doing much for her insomnia, but she's getting a great cardiovascular workout. Now Nell's running down a passageway where filmy curtains are billowing in a breeze -- why not toss a bit of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast into the slop -- and ghost girl shows up again, outlined in a curtain. "Help us, Eleanor," she pleads as she glides around the draperies. Nell keeps asking what they want her to do, but the phantom twerps won't vouchsafe a clue.
Back to the conservatory, where Luke, Theo and the Perfesser are frantically searching for Nell. They find her at the top of the double-spiral staircase. The Perfesser ascends one rickety stairway as it falls to pieces beneath him.
He tries to coax Nell down, but she refuses: "The children need me! I have to join them!"
The Perfesser leaps from one stairway to the other just before the first one collapses entirely. But then the other one starts to disintegrate. While he dangles perilously over the ironmongery, the Perfesser's cell phone -- their only communication with the outside world -- slips out of his pocket and shatters on the floor. Nell helps him up to the catwalk, while she blathers on about how Hugh won't let the children go. (Just in case you missed that, the first half-dozen times.)
There must have been another way down from that catwalk, because in the next scene Nell's back in her bed. Luke's arguing with the Perfesser, telling him they need to get her to a hospital now. The Perfesser wants to wait until the morning.
Theo insists Nell should have someone with her at all times. Luke volunteers to take the first watch.
Now the Perfesser's by himself in the conservatory, dictating more notes about how swimmingly his experiment is going. Suddenly, he realizes what he's saying, and blurts "Jesus, I've got to get them out of here!" The giant statue in the pool comes alive, and mischievously dunks him, while a gout of Karo syrup with red food coloring gushes from its mouth. Then it sets him, shivering and spluttering, back on his feet.
Back to Nell's bedroom. Now it's the ceiling's turn to get into the bulging act. The Woody Kids are even more appalled than before. The floor heaves up and splinters. The ceiling morphs into Hugh Crain's face. The canopy bed spikes turn into tentacles, and imprison Nell. She screams.
"But I had my exam just last month!"
The Perfesser and Theo hear her. "That's Nell!" cries Theo, quite unnecessarily. Luke, who's been napping on a sofa just outside the bedroom, tries to reach Nell, but the doors slam shut. Inside, ceiling bulge Hugh Crain sticks his tongue out. The tongue sprouts a bunch of arms which reach out toward Nell. But they hesitate and draw back.
The Perfesser and Theo join Luke outside Nell's door, and force their way in. Using a heavy candlestick, they break the spikes and free Nell. The ceiling menaces Luke and the Perfesser, but doesn't seem capable of actually grabbing them, either. Perhaps Hugh needs more work on his tongue/eye coordination.
Everybody beats feet from the bedroom and out of the house. They try to open the gate, but the Perfesser's lost the key to the lock. While Luke ineffectually flails at the lock with a garden spade, Nell learns the Perfesser was not the one who called and told her to check out the ad. Ooooo, creepy! Who was it, then?
Luke tries to ram through the gate with Nell's Gremlin. A large, circular contraption on the gate which bristles with concentric rings of rather inexplicable ten-inch metal spikes topples onto the car's roof, trapping Luke inside. While Theo and the Perfesser are busy extracting Luke from the Gremlin, Nell hears the phantom kids calling, inviting her to please come back. The lights go on in every room.
Theo and the Perfesser finally drag Luke out through the car's rear window. Then they realize Nell's disappeared.
They return to the mansion. The pushy door which previously wouldn't budge now stands ajar. Beyond it is an enormous nursery. One corner of the nursery, though, is devoted to a recreation of Nell's invalid mother's bed, complete with I.V. stand and bag, cane and foreshadowy sampler. Nell sits on the floor at the foot of the bed, cranking the handle of what must have been an early prototype of the Edison Phonograph, before they worked out that size problem.
While it plays a sappy tune, Nell informs them Caroline was her great-great-great-grandmother, and this was her bed before she had a child and ran away. And all the children here are her family. They wanted Nell to see it, so she'd know she was home.
Nell's resolved to stay, she explains, because Hugh is always hunting the children, and she can protect them. They try to dissuade her. The house starts banging away again. Nell warns the others to get out before Hugh attacks them. They sprint for the front door, but it slams shut. "He's not going to let you go," Nell tells them.
They try to smash out a couple of windows, but the chairs stick to the magnetized, unbreakable window frames. Luke leaps up on a bureau and vents his frustration on a portrait of Hugh by defacing it with a candlestick. Horrified, Nell screams at him to get away from the painting. He jumps down onto a rug, which promptly scoots across the floor like a goosed Maserati, until it stops suddenly and catapults him into the fireplace.
Luke stands up and dusts himself off, apparently none the worse for being thrown through the air about twenty feet, slammed against a knobbly iron back-plate and dropped on a pile of logs. Despite having just a short while ago barely missed being mashed by that giant, poorly-secured flue lever with the brass lion's head, he lingers long enough for it to swing down -- while he freezes, and just stands there watching it swoop upon him. Luke is decapitated. And the lever's set at just the right height so that his head remains in the mouth of the brass lion, until it appears to spit it out on the return swing.
The cover on the ash pit flies open. The pit vomits ashes and bones all over the remaining three. (Is Mrs. Dudley ever going to be cheesed when she sees this mess!) They retreat up the stairs. The Perfesser begs Nell to tell them what to do. She says they have to hide. From an invisible entity who can apparently be anywhere, at any time, and go all Reed Richards on their ass. Right.
That oversize painting of Hugh falls off the wall, gouging Theo's arm. One of the pewter griffins comes to life, and Nell whacks on it with a piece of lumber while yelling at the others to run away. They should be getting pretty good at that by now.
Having subdued the statue, Nell scurries after them, but her companions have disappeared. Nell finds herself in front of a portrait of Caroline, who's holding an infant in her arms. She suddenly notices the silver pendant Caroline is wearing, which is engraved with a "C". It's the same pendant Nell is wearing. So they really are related.
Nell returns to the head of the stairs. "Hugh Crain!" she shouts defiantly. She descends the staircase, while the statues' heads turn to follow her. More stretchy house, while she stands ankle-deep in ashes and kiddie skulls. "Hugh Crain!" she shouts once more. The portrait at the top of the stairs hangs itself back on the wall, and spectral Hugh erupts from it.
Theo and the Perfesser reappear. Hugh's apparition turns to attack them, but Nell stands in his way and tells the old phantom she won't let him hurt them. As the Gargantuan ghostie looms over them, she declares she's not afraid of him; the children need her and she's going to set them free. Hugh's really pissed now. He bellows and bends down toward the trio.
Nell stands her ground: "Even in death, you wouldn't let them go, and I'm going to stop you!"
Hugh counters by raising a whirlwind of ashes, and all the statues and carvings come to life. They don't actually do anything, but what the hey, it looks cool. Nell lectures Huge Hugh about family. Meanwhile, the bas-relief figures on the big bronze doors are stirring, too. "Purgatory's over," she yells at Hugh's impotently raging phantom. "You're going to Hell!"
Hugh roars and flings her against the door, but the demons catch her and lower her gently to the floor.
Then the bronze demons yank Hugh into the door. Hugh tries to break out, but the figure of Death pulls him back in. The doors are suffused with a golden light, and the embedded children turn into freed spirits, who thank Nell nicely. Her spirit comes out of her body, and she flies around with the kids for a while until they all disappear.
Look, is it just me, or did the preceding make no sense whatsoever? I mean, what, all that was needed was to give Hugh a good talking-to? And why did he have those doors built in the first place? That inscription -- "All Ye Who Stand Before These Doors Shall Be Judged" -- appears to be a sort of half-baked reference to Hugh's religious mania, which was a major part of the original story but got completely jettisoned in this mess. But what kind of judgment leaves the souls of murdered children trapped there for Hugh to harass? One thing's for sure: He certainly ignored those safety instructions at his peril.
Next morning, the Dudleys drive up. Theo and the Perfesser are standing on the other side of the gate as Mr. Dudley unlocks it. "City people," says his wife, shaking her head.
The caretaker asks the Perfesser if he found out what he wanted to know. The Perfesser doesn't answer, as the camera pans up and away. Fadeout to credits.
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that what the director was actually after here in his adorably ham-handed way was the first feature-length, live-action Scooby Doo. With Owen Wilson as Shaggy, Liam Neeson as Fred, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Daphne, Lili Taylor as Velma, CGI Hugh Crain as Old Man Withers and Hill House as the abandoned amusement park. So where's the lovable mutt? Easy: he was disguised as one of the griffins. And it would have worked, too, if hadn't been for those meddling stiffs!
Say, I just had a brilliant idea: Eraserhead! It's old. It's black and white. It's creepy. A remake ought to be right up De Bont's alley. Quick, get Spielberg on the line! And hold my calls for the rest of the afternoon.