Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) is a psychologist conducting an experiment ostensibly about insomnia but actually about his desire to “investigate the dynamics of fear.” This equals taking naive Eleanor (Lili Taylor), sex kitten Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and goofy Luke (Owen Wilson) and testing their reactions to a supposed haunting in the giant mansion they’re staying in. Things backfire when the ghosts in the house take a shine to Eleanor and decide they want her to stay and play with them forever.
I have nothing against Lili Taylor; I loved her in movies when her character is less than heroic like The Conjuring and I Shot Andy Warhol, but Eleanor gets on my nerves. She’s childlike and self-centered. Like the scene when she talks about the mansion with its housekeeper Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes). Eleanor is going on about how pretty the carvings of children’s faces are, and Mrs. Dudley sourly notes that it’s just more to dust for her. Eleanor blah blahs more about how she likes the house. “You must love working here,” she concludes. Yes, it sure must be great having to clean a house the size of a football stadium. Eleanor is often equated with children. She is singled out by the kids to help them, but it’s less like she’s a mother figure and more like she’s one of them. In one scene she kneels by a statue of a woman reading to kids, and she fits right in with the children. Her perception of the house is of childlike wonder. She also comes off as a bit asexual, with her frumpy wardrobe and her rejecting Theo’s advances and being completely oblivious to Luke and Dr. Marrow. Her cavalier attitude toward helping the ghosts is refreshing, but then she gets even more obnoxious—the multiple scenes of her finding something, getting scared, and running away are tiresome.
There are some things to like. The special effects are pretty good for 1999. It’s not terrifically gory; it’s thoughtful. Like Dr. Marrow, we are observing how the characters react in their crazy setting. It’s not very scary either; there’s one scene that’s kind of creepy when the wall fixtures in Eleanor’s room turn into eyes and glare at her while the kid-head carvings turn into scared, screaming faces. However, that bit with the carvings gets used a good two more times and by then has lost its creepiness factor. The house is a little eerie, since so many of the decorations and fixtures look like eyes.
But the ending, as per usual for Hollywood movies, turns crappy, as well as terrifically sappy. I do think it’s less boring than the original. I saw it in the theatre very shortly after coming out of the closet as bisexual, and the character of Theo was exciting. (I’ve heard that a love scene between Theo and Eleanor was shot but not used; I’ve looked for a DVD with deleted scenes but haven’t found one yet). Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something serious but kinda cheesy.