Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Haunting - DTS (1999)
Studio Line: DreamWorks - Some Houses Are Born Bad

In this edge-of-your seat supernatural thriller featuring Hollywood's hottest stars, a study in fear escalates into a heart-stopping nightmare for a professor and three subjects trapped in a mysterious mansion.

For over a century, the dark and forbidding Hill House has sat alone and abandoned...or so it seemed. Intrigued by the mansion's storied past, Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) lures his three subjects - Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Nell (Lili Taylor) and Luke (Owen Wilson) - to the site for a seemingly harmless experiment. But, from the moment of their arrival, Nell seems mysteriously drawn to the house...and the attraction is frighteningly mutual. When night descends, the study goes horrifyingly awry as the subjects discover the haunting secrets that live within the walls of Hill House.

Don't miss the state-of-the-art special effects as Hill House unleashes its supernatural wrath in this latest thriller from the director of Speed and Twister.

Director: Jan De Bont
Cast: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes
Box Office: Budget: $80 million. Opening Weekend: $33.435 million. Gross: $91.188 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DTS ES 6.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 24 chapters; rated PG-13; $24.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Behind the scenes feature; 2 theatrical trailers; Cast and Filmmakers' Bios; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD - DTS | DVD | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/A+/C+

Although it received a critical hammering upon its theatrical release last year, I must admit I kind of liked The Haunting. It's not a classic, but it provides enough thrills to merit a screening.

My more detailed thoughts about the film itself can be found in my original review of the Dolby Digital DVD, but The Haunting provides an unusual case in that more than any other movie I can recall, my enjoyment of the story stemmed largely from the audio.

The DVD:

As such, this DTS DVD provided an even better presentation than did the excellent DD package. The Haunting is about one thing above all else: bass. Never have I heard a film more intensely deep. Low end dominates this production to such a degree that during the rare occasions when the subwoofer channel wasn't active, it startled me; I became so accustomed to the consistently-present rumble that it felt odd not to hear it. The bass is so intense that I expected the police to knock on my door at any minute during the movie; with every new ball-buster, I'd turn down the volume a little, but it still packed a tremendous punch. All that and I don't even have a subwoofer; I can't imagine how intense the experience would under that circumstance.

As I note in my original review, The Haunting is a deeply mediocre film that tells its story in a drab, slow-paced manner. Nonetheless, I felt pretty involved in it and affected by it due to the sound. The mix so powerfully grabbed me that I was tense and edgy throughout much of the movie. Lots of films try to use sound to startle the viewer, but this one really took the cake, as it caught me off guard more times than I care to admit.

The soundfield lacks the whiz-bang nature of more active affairs but it surrounds the viewer exceedingly well. Early in the film we see a sign that reads "a place for everything and everything in its place", and I think the sound designers took that sentiment to heart, as all of the audio seems very precisely located within the various channels. Every creak and rumble we hear comes from distinct locations, and the realism this offers greatly adds to the movie's effect.

Quality seems equally strong. Though some of the dialogue betrays a little stiffness, and a few lines came across as mildly edgy, most of the speech sounds natural and warm, with no problems related to intelligibility. The music displayed strong presence and brightness; though it could get a little lost under the bass, the score still seemed bold and crisp. Of course, the effects are the stars of the show, as they appeared clean and smooth with terrific definition. No matter how loud the effects became, I discerned no signs of distortion, though I occasionally worried the bass would blow some of my speakers.

Regular readers should know that unlike some reviewers, I don't hand out "A+" ratings lightly. In regard to soundtracks, I've given precisely two of them for movies: both Saving Private Ryan and Twister earned the coveted award, but no other film has also gotten such recognition from me. (Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night got an "A+", but that wasn't a movie.)

Throughout my screening of the DTS edition of The Haunting, I argued with myself whether or not it deserved to join the ranks of the "A+" club. Part of me felt it didn't because - unlike the other two members - the use of the five channels isn't a stunning show of discrete audio. Yes, the film uses each speaker nicely and appropriately, but the creaks and roars don't quite compare with the brute force of the battle scenes in SPR or the hurtling destruction of Twister; those are so powerful that they actually give me goosebumps to hear.

Also, I wasn't totally sure that the DTS version of The Haunting outdid the DD edition enough to warrant the higher grade. After all, that track displayed some serious bass as well, and it showed very similar qualities. Whatever differences occurred may not have been significant enough to deserve an increased grade.

So why did I ultimately give the DTS track of The Haunting an "A+"? Because many times during the film, I thought to myself, "I'm running this sucker next time I want to show off my system." As shallow as it may sound, that was the deciding factor: the demonstration-worthy aspect of the track. I loved the audio for the DD edition, but I never felt as though it deserved to be showcased. The DTS track made me feel differently; the slight increase in bass and spatial positioning took it from "simply excellent" to "you gotta hear this!"

One final note about the audio: The Haunting actually features the first DTS ES soundtrack on DVD. As with DD EX, this provides 6.1 channels of sound, but unlike DD EX, apparently they're discrete channels, whereas the sixth channel of the Dolby equivalent is matrixed. According to the DTS website, the first DTS ES-enabled received will ship this month (August 2000). Did this encoding make any difference through my plain-old DTS 5.1 receiver? Not that I could notice; sure, it sounded great, but I couldn't discern any advantage offered by the extra track for those of us without the newest equipment. Still, it'll be interesting to discover if these 6.1 mixes ever have much of an impact upon home theater environments.

The Haunting appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture appears to duplicate the outstanding image found on the prior DVD.

Throughout the film, the picture seems very crisp and well-defined, with virtually no instances of softness on display. I witnessed no moiré effects or jagged edges, though I found more artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV than usual. (For the record, I don't take off points from my ratings of DVDs due to downconversion issues since they are more dependent on the player than they are the transfer itself; problems I encounter through my player may be absent or more intense on someone else's, and of course they should vanish completely on a 16X9 TV, so I note them here to let you know what you may expect, but my comments about artifacts should not be regarded as absolute.)

The print utilized seemed perfect, as one would expect from a recent, big-budget film; I never noticed any grain, scratches, or spots of any kind. Colors aren't emphasized in this semi-moody offering, but what we see looks quite accurate and tight; the velvety reds strewn through the mansion appear especially lush. Black levels are deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed very appropriate, with no loss of information. All in all, it's a fine transfer.

Now on to the supplements, in a section I'll call "Bait and Switch, Part Two:" prior to the November 1999 release of the original Haunting DVD, listings indicated it would include an audio commentary from director Jan DeBont and production designer Eugenio Zanetti, plus some deleted scenes and other features. The latter made it, but no sign of the commentary or the cut segments appeared, much to my disappointment.

When the DTS DVD was announced, once again we heard that all of these features would arrive on it. Once again they do not: the DTS DVD exactly duplicates the supplements found on the original DVD.

What exactly is going on here?! I'm fairly stunned that this mix-up happened twice. It was somewhat understandable the first time, but this second occurrence is really annoying, especially since I'll bet a lot of people ordered this disc based on the alleged inclusion of the extra materials.

To be frank, I'm not sure from where the confusion originated. Although many usually-accurate sites list the commentary and the deleted scenes - such as Amazon, Image Entertainment, and DVD Planet (formerly Ken Crane's) - I've never seen an official document from DreamWorks that touts these extras. As such, I don't know for a fact that the blame lies with them, but I honestly expect that it must; I can't imagine that all these different sources just assumed certain features would appear without some official reason why.

Add to that the fact a sticker on the case touts "never before seen footage!" and I'm even more irked. I felt that statement implied that this DVD included material not found on the prior one, but that certainly does not appear to be the case.

Anyway, that's the annoying story of what's missing. So what do we actually get? Not too much. The most significant supplement is a 27-minute "behind the scenes" feature hosted by the ever-luscious Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's a fairly basic but informative program that offers brief but interesting snippets on most aspects of the film's creation. It includes interview snippets with all the main actors and the chief production crew and it also shows some on set shots that demonstrate how parts of the movie were made. I've seen better and I've seen worse; overall, however, it's a short but pretty good documentary.

Other than that, all we get are some of the old DVD staples. Two trailers - one teaser, one theatrical - are included; both feature Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, something we don't commonly see but I always appreciate. The DVD also features some perfunctory cast (six actors) and crew (eight members) biographies plus some brief but decent production notes; the latter text is also duplicated within the DVD's booklet.

While I sort of enjoyed The Haunting, it's not a DVD that I can strongly recommend; the movie's just too silly too much of the time. It offers a pleasant diversion that can be entertaining, but it's really not much of a movie. The DVD provides absolutely stellar picture and sound, however, and though the supplemental section was slight, it includes a couple of nice pieces; I remain aggravated by the lack of advertised features, however. Ultimately, I think the movie's worth a rental; despite all the negatives you may have heard about it, the film presented a mildly pleasant surprise.

As far as whether you should purchase the DTS DVD of The Haunting, that depends on your level of audio geekiness. For anyone who has to have the absolute best with which to show off their system, go for it; you'll be very pleased, whether or not you already own the original Dolby Digital edition. I don't recommend it for anyone else who already has the DD version; the sound improvement is noticeable but not that extreme, and despite what you may have heard, it includes no supplements not found on the first DVD. If you don't own that one but have DTS capabilities and want a nice showpiece, this DVD will make a nice addition to your collection.

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