The Haunting: That Damned House

SCREAM… No one will hear you! RUN… And the silent footsteps will follow, for in Hill House the dead are restless!

 

Shirley Jackson’s novel, on which this classic film was based, is often described as one of the finest horror stories of the twentieth century. Martin Scorsese became terrified enough to label Robert Wise’s adaptation the scariest film of all time. Fine praise indeed, but the fact of the matter is that hardly anyone watching it in 2012 will find it all that frightening. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an example of superior filmmaking.

Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is investigating paranormal phenomena and has found the perfect place to conduct an experiment – Hill House, an intimidating mansion built 90 years ago by Hugh Crain as a home for his wife. Unfortunately, she was killed in an accident on the way to the house; years later, Crain’s second wife died after falling down the stairs. Her daughter lived a wretched life in Hill House where she also eventually died; the nurse, who had ignored the old woman’s cries for help, inherited the house… and ended up hanging herself. This horrifying history hangs like an ominous cloud over Hill House. Markway decides to spend a few nights there and brings three companions – the deeply skeptical Luke Sannerson (Russ Tamblyn), a psychic called Theodora (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a spinster who’s spent her entire life caring for her mother who recently died. Eleanor in particular feels attracted to the house, as if it’s speaking to her…

Psychology plays a great part
Wise once said that the shooting of The Haunting was one of his best filmmaking experiences. It is certainly an inspiring movie. Along with cinematographer Davis Boulton, Wise turns Ettington Park (near Stratford-upon-Avon) into a dark, mysterious place. Early in the film, Dr. Markway talks about the lack of straight lines and exact angles in Hill House, and the filmmakers do their best to make Ettington look like that; the camera is often askew and there are many close low-angle shots that create a feeling of claustrophobia. The two most famous scenes take place at night, especially the latter when the ghosts are banging at the door and Eleanor thinks that the comforting hand she’s holding in the dark belongs to Theodora. In those scenes, psychology plays an even greater part than the modest special effects; the terror we can imagine is greater than what we’re actually witnessing. This was an important part in Jackson’s novel and remains so in this version; the audience is invited to share Eleanor’s thinking and we understand how this weak person is easily seduced by the power of Hill House. At the same time, Markway’s constant analyzing of what’s going on becomes a minor liability; there are moments when it feels like Wise and writer Nelson Gidding focus too much on trying to explain the ghosts rather than chilling our spines. Harris is terrific as poor Eleanor, allegedly embracing this introvert character on set to the point that Bloom felt hurt by not being able to connect with her co-star.

In the end, this is a great haunted-house tale. And you kids who’ve grown up on the work of Marcus Nispel and similar hacks – The Haunting has flaws, but at least its thrills won’t insult your intelligence.

The Haunting 1963-U.S. 112 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay: Nelson Gidding. Novel: Shirley Jackson (“The Haunting of Hill House”). Cinematography: Davis Boulton. Cast: Julie Harris (Eleanor “Nell” Lance), Claire Bloom (Theodora), Richard Johnson (John Markway), Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, Fay Compton.

Trivia: Remade as The Haunting (1999).

Last word: “I was reading one of the very scary passages – hackles were going up and down my neck – when Nelson Gidding [the screenwriter]… burst through the door to ask me a question. I literally jumped about three feet out of my chair. I said, ‘If it can do that to me sitting and reading, it ought to be something I want to make a picture out of.’” (Wise, “Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair”)

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