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When bad houses happen to good people.

By Susan Ellis

AUGUST 2, 1999:  What a drag. Girl's been tending her sick mother for 11 years, came running each time the old lady banged her cane on the wall, no matter what time of night. Now the mother's gone, and girl should be getting some long-delayed nooky. Instead, she goes to a sleep-deprivation clinic at some wack house in the Berkshires.

Like I said, what a drag. But the horror film The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson book The Haunting of Hill House, is something more repugnant. With its poor acting, its worse dialogue, and its who're-you-kidding? storyline, it's energetically insipid.

Lili Taylor stars as Nell, the girl with the mother. Shortly after her mother kicked and her sister tells her she's selling the family apartment (thereby making Nell homeless), she gets a call to participate in a sleep study to be held at Hill House, an enormous estate with an enormous history. Her companions for the study are bisexual artist Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and all-around wise-guy Luke (Owen Wilson). Heading the study is Dr. David Morrow (Liam Neeson), who, unbeknownst to his charges, is not actually interested in sleep patterns but how one reacts to fear.

Hill House was built by textile baron Hugh Crain. Childless, he and his wife longed for children. Something happened, there's a death, maybe more, and now long after Crain's gone, townspeople won't go near the place after dusk. As the caretaker's wife explains to Nell, "No one will come nearer than [town] in the night in the dark." But what does Nell care? She's having an adventure in a fabulous house, soaking it all in with her shiny, happy brown eyes. She's excited to be there. Of course, that's before she starts getting attacked by the decor.

Yes, Hill House is a regular Amityville, only less gory -- this film is rated PG-13, after all. In fact, there's very little to fear in The Haunting, which was directed by Jan De Bont (Speed and Twister). An ordinary guy's tale of a leaky roof has more true terror than this film. And, as is becoming increasingly common in today's features, The Haunting relies more on technology than on its actors to expand its ideas.

Zeta-Jones adds a dash of sex with a wink and a nearly all-burgundy wardrobe. But, sadly, there's not much else to say about the rest of the cast. Taylor, as the simpering, good girl Nell, puts in what could be her worst performance yet. She acts the script entirely with her eyebrows and it's completely annoying (you may find yourself cheering for the light fixtures when they come after her). Wilson, who co-wrote the charming Rushmore, puts in a decidedly flimsy I'm-the-fun-guy turn. He may as well have an X on his forehead, because you know this character isn't getting out alive. As for Neeson, his performance is pretty much nondescript.

In the end, as the bad ghost is being exorcised, Nell yells, "Purgatory's over. Go to hell!" Funny, I thought we were already there.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is going to piss off some Minnesotans. The beauty-pageant comedy is merciless in giving the state's citizenry the business about their hokey accents and presents them as a bunch of nuts. They shouldn't feel so bad, however, since the film is pretty much an equal-opportunity offender. Anorexics take a lick, as do the retarded and Adam West of TV's Batman.

But the film isn't a complete disaster. Some of it is kind of funny, though not quite funny enough to recommend.

The plot involves a small-town pageant and the eight girls who are vying for the Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess America crown. One of the contestants is Amber (Kirsten Dunst), a girl-next-door type -- if next door is a trailer park -- who wants to be the next Diane Sawyer. Her chief competition is Becky (Denise Richards), the rich kid who has been bred for this moment. Other participants include a cheerleader slut, a pudgy dog lover, and a sign-language enthusiast.

Everyone in town knows that Becky will win -- her mother (played in the worst way by Kirstie Alley) is the pageant's emcee. Still, Amber does have a shot, which may explain why she sees a pair of deadly "accidents" as a threat from Becky.

In some ways, Drop Dead Gorgeous reminded me of Pageant, a musical recently staged at Circuit Playhouse. In Pageant, the contestants are all men dressed as women, and its gags are the obvious ones -- it's a tried-and-true approach. This movie has them, too: the silly talent contest, the inevitable speech praising Jesus. But Drop Dead Gorgeous casts a wider net with jokes about Lee Press-On Nails and farm machinery-induced orgasms. It's quirky, all right, but too determinedly so. The jokes begin to cancel themselves out after a while so that they become rather bland.

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