By Leah Rozen
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor

Hill House, the imposing 19th-century mansion that is as much a player in The Haunting as the film’s flesh-and-blood characters, is badly in need of feng shui. That would be the ancient, but now popular, Chinese art of making sure that a place is in harmony with nature and free of evil forces. The latter are in plentiful supply in Hill House, and some of them seem to have turned their attention to gumming up the movie’s plot. What starts out as a fun, campy horror film filled with hip banter (“This place is like Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters,” cracks Zeta-Jones upon entering the house) degenerates about halfway through into a silly special-effects lalapalooza in which nasty spirits manifest themselves as homicidal statues or as hands that emerge from ceilings and walls in search of human prey. Get a grip, indeed.

Who has to contend with all this badness? The four innocents stuck in the house for the night. One of them (Neeson) is a scientist who has lured the other three (Zeta-Jones, Taylor and Wilson) there on the pretext of studying their insomnia. He actually intends to scare them with ghost stories and things that go bump in the night so that he can measure the effects of, as he puts it, “fear and anxiety on highly suggestible types.” The house, it turns out, would like to make a few suggestions of its own, none of them sleep-inducing.

Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (also the basis of a 1963 movie), this Haunting has a couple of genuine made-you-jump scares, but viewers will more often titter derisively than nervously. Director Jan De Bont (Twister and Speed 1 and 2) convincingly creates an atmosphere of menace, but he doesn’t know what to do once he has it in place. The actors are mostly at sea after the larky opening scenes, although doleful Taylor acts throughout as though she were doing Eugene O’Neill with a supernatural twist. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Plays like Dark Shadows on a bad day