This high-tech remake of the creepy classic is dumb and overblown, but some teenagers will have a good time with it, especially if they go in a group. Its only possible merit is that it is too silly to be scary. There are some good special effects and a couple of “boo!”-style surprises, so it can be just the thing for those early parentless outings.
Liam Neeson plays a doctor who (contrary to any sense of scientific ethics) invites three people to a spooky mansion for what he tells them is insomnia therapy. In reality, it is a part of his study of fear. The three subjects are Luke, a surfer type (Owen Wilson, a bit less spacey than the part he played in “Armageddon”), Theo, a bi-sexual artist who enjoys being provocative but is basically good-hearted (Catherine Zeta- Jones, as divinely gorgeous as she was in “Entrapment”), and Nell, a quiet woman who has spent years taking care of an invalid mother (Lily Taylor, far from the indie films for which she is best known).
The house is indeed amazingly creepy, accurately described by Theo as the house from “Citizen Kane” crossed with the house from “The Munsters.” Every gossamer curtain and every gothic carving screams “watch me because I am going to come to life later on” and in that, at least, we are not disappointed. What does disappoint are the plot and the dialogue, which so interfere with the mood the movie is trying to create that they become the best possible protection against anyone — even a 12 year old — taking it too seriously. R.L. Stine books and even Scooby-Doo epsisodes are scarier.
Kids who are genuinely interested in scary movies should watch the original version, directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, to see how subtle story-telling can be much more unsettling. Parents may want to talk about some of the serious themes raised by the movie, including the ethics of scientific experimentation, the role of fear in evolution, child labor, and the paranormal, but perhaps of more interest and value is a discussion of why people like to be scared in a controlled environment like a movie, and what is and is not really scary.