Robert Zemeckis’ ghost story is both an homage to Hitchcock and a vehicle for the director’s visual audacity (or, if you’re harder on Zemeckis, gimmickry). There’s little new in this old-fashioned haunted house tale, but what is presented is solid and entertaining.
A beautiful, vulnerable Michele Pfeiffer lives with her researcher/scholar husband (Harrison Ford) in a New England college town, their home a picturesque waterfront exemplar from Architectural Digest. Pfeiffer has just dropped her only child off at college and is in the midst of an empty nest crisis. Worse, she’s recovering from a car accident a year prior and she believes her new neighbors’ marital woes have escalated to the husband killing the wife (she even believes she sees the husband disposing of the body, much as Jimmy Stewart saw Raymond Burr covering up his foul deed in Rear Window). What better to harass this fragile woman than a spirit attempting to communicate with her?
Zemeckis does a nice job of interweaving a few plot lines, and he produces some genuinely creepy moments. But the film has flaws. First, Zemeckis so distrusts the audience’s ability to follow the plot he over-lingers to focus our attention on a fact or clue. So, in his work, Ford is working with a drug that immobilizes while the subject maintains consciousness. I wonder if that will come into play later? Second, Hitchcockian is one thing, but a replica is quite another. By the end of the film, the score is a mash of Bernard Hermann and the tribute so unrelenting, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety comes to mind. The movie is also overlong, piling reveal scenes on top of each other, replacing tension with exhaustion.
The virtues, however, outweigh the negatives. The film mostly moves briskly, there are genuine scares, and the characters, while a tad humorless, are engaging. Pfeiffer is an effective mix of emotional fragility and upper class angst, and Ford is a surprisingly sympathetic villain. Indeed, Pfeiffer comes off as spoiled and becomes so unstable, you find yourself siding with the seemingly reasonable Ford, who fairly suggests his wife is punishing him in a passive aggressive manner with all the ghost nonsense.