Eleanor "Nell" (Lili Taylor) has just found her freedom. Her mother, whom she cared for, has just passed away and her sister has just evicted her from her home. She's invited to apply to be a part of an insomnia study by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson). The study involves staying in the secluded mansion called Hill House with two other volunteers as well as the doctor and his associates.
Hill House is an unusual building full of creepy cherub carvings, gothic architecture and strange theme rooms including a glass, animated ballroom (very reminiscent of the one in the Labrynth) and a submerged hallway with books instead of stepping stones.
Nell is shown to her room by the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes) who explains in very clear language that both she and her caretaker husband (Bruce Dern) do not stay after dark in the house. Nell is later joined by a bouncy insomniac called Luke (Owen Wilson) and a rich, bisexual lady called Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as well as the doctor and his entourage. Unbeknownst to the participants, the study is really about fear and the good doctor intends to terrify his volunteers in order to study the impacts of fear. Therefore, during the first night, Dr. Marrow tells the story of the house that Crain built; Hill House.
The legend has it that Mr. Crain (Charles Gunning), a rich tycoon, built the house for he and his wife, intending to have a huge family. Alas, all his children died whilst very young. The story is very provocative and the volunteers become intrigued, letting their imaginations run away with them. However, Nell, above all the others is most affected. The house seems to be calling out to her; she can hear the ghostly screams and cries of children, see things out of the corner of her eye.... Eventually she comes to find that the true story of Hill House has a much darker level to it, a level that may involve her personally....
A fun film which manages to maintain the plot and nuances of the original tale, whilst updating the context and characters, although it is nowhere near as effective. The effects are pretty dated by today's standards, but there are some genuinely creepy, if cheesy, scenes (it's more the small movements of things at the start of the film that make the biggest impact. By the end of the film there is just too much going on).
The film does play as a cheesy spook story though, and relies overly on the effects, where the older 60s film used a build of dread to spook us. This has dated it very much, minimising any scare factor that it had.
For me, it was a bit of 90s nostalgia from when I was first discovering 'modern' horror films as a pre-teen. Good times.
[Image: DreamWorks Productions]