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The Chill Factor

Whether it's a new version of 'The Mummy' or an attempt to outdo 'Jaws,' films are using everything from computer imagery to that old standby--the power of suggestion--to scare.

May 02, 1999|ROBERT ABELE | Robert Abele is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

When film pioneers Louis and Auguste Lumiere first unveiled their tiny strips of moving images to unwitting audiences at the turn of the last century, they became the first movie makers to scare people with a special effect. "Arrival of a Train," of 1895--a now-innocuous straight-ahead shot of an engine pulling into a station--had French theatergoers terrified at what they believed was their imminent flattening by an oncoming locomotive.

Of course, the effects of film projection alone as devious trickery wore off pretty quickly, but audiences' desire to be thrilled and scared didn't. From Lumiere peer Georges Melies' inspired photographic cheats--whether turning off the camera between takes so an actor could be replaced by a beheaded dummy or layering images to suggest ghostly apparitions--through stop-motion apes, Linda Blair's above-the-neck gyrations and vivid computer-generated dinosaurs, the art of illusion has been chilling us to the bone for cinema's entire century of existence.

This summer, the challenge of jolting audiences with effects both physical and animated belongs to a handful of eagerly anticipated movies. Some revisit horror classics (DreamWorks' "The Haunting" and Universal's "The Mummy"), while others rethink the genre entirely (Artisan's "The Blair Witch Project"). Some offer ferocious creatures (Warner Bros.' "Deep Blue Sea" and Fox's "Lake Placid"), while others offer more of a mind trip (Columbia's "The Thirteenth Floor"). But for the following films, the ultimate goal is the same: Tap into our fears and, for two hours in a dark theater, make them disturbingly real.

'The Haunting'

Four years after "Twister," Jan De Bont is once again looking at dust clouds. Over a video-conferencing setup at his Blue Tulip Productions office in West Los Angeles with Berkeley-based Phil Tippett, visual effects supervisor for "The Haunting," De Bont is checking out a digitally created shot of his movie's Gothic/Victorian house doing decidedly un-homey things with a velvet-covered wall. "It needs more violent dust particles coming out," offers De Bont.

"More violence, OK," responds Tippett's disembodied voice. Such are the effects particulars of DreamWorks' $80-million version of Shirley Jackson's classic novel "The Haunting of Hill House."

"It's a very fine line," De Bont says later. "The moment you go the slightest bit over the top, it becomes silly." Although the book was memorably filmed once before in 1963 by Robert Wise, De Bont's version isn't a remake, he quickly points out, it's a retelling--albeit an effects-updated one. In any case, "The Haunting" brings together four individuals--played by Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones--for a sleep-disorder study in a crazily huge mansion built 130 years ago by a man who seems to still be hanging around, and may have otherworldly designs on the fragile, possibly delusional Taylor. Computer-generated work is an integral part of this "Haunting," but for De Bont, "anything you can do physically you should try first, because it's so direct." Hence production designer Eugenio Zanetti's hyper-detailed, massive interior house sets, with walls that could each be manipulated thanks to separate hydraulics (overseen by physical effects expert John Frazier).

Speakers were then strategically arranged throughout so De Bont's and Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom's painstaking pre-production sound effects wrangling could provide the actors genuine aural weirdness to react to before the cameras.

Tippett's crew, working under a breakneck schedule that saw principal photography wrap only three weeks ago, is laboring over the computer work he calls "threshold events," moments that create "a ghostly, subjective kind of effect right on the edge of perception. It might be breath condensation on a glass, or a slight [ripple] in a curtain that's more than just wind."

While there are more overtly horrific set pieces in the film--manifestations of murdered children materializing from sheets and pillows, for example--it's the small stuff, the sanity-questioning effects (Did that . . . ? Naaah), that are the most challenging and gratifying.

Says Tippett, "It's a tremendous amount of effort just trying to figure out what the essence is of somebody's hair moving as though it's being touched by an invisible entity," he says, referring to one effect with Taylor. "We're trying to be eerie and creepy and ghostly rather than shocking. There's not a lot of things jumping out and decapitating people--although there's a little bit of that."

For De Bont, who hopes he has an "adult, classy, supernatural thriller" in store for audiences, the blunt description is best. "It's all very freaky."

'The Mummy'

Whatever you do, warns John Berton, Industrial Light & Magic's visual effects supervisor for "The Mummy," don't assume Universal's $80-million update of the Boris Karloff classic is your father's (or grandfather's) monster movie.

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