The Haunting. 1963. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Nelson Gidding; based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn. Argyle Enterprises. Rated G. 112 minutes (Black & White).
Whatever the equivalent of a Renaissance Man in film, it certainly was Robert Wise. He crossed over genres and did so many incredible movies in the span of his career that it’s almost not even sensible. Not nowadays, even with lots of great filmmakers popping out here and there.
Think about it – The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That’s not even all of them, just the good ones (except for the first Star Trek).
Wise has that classic sensibility about his filmmaking. Here, he uses such beautifully constructed angles and lighting, shadow, to create a haunting feeling. His ability to put us in the perspective of a character is uncanny. The Haunting is not just a ghost story, nor is it simply a typical haunted house horror movie. Wise constructs a supernatural type film around very psychological premises. Working off the excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the screenplay by Nelson Gidding is woven finely and Wise makes it something intimate, as well as very universal. Though we spend so much time getting into the head of one particular lead character, the story and its trappings draw on a widely held fear – one that comes out of wondering what lies beyond the veil of death.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) plans on conducting experiments concerning ghostly entities. He is able to secure the use of Hill House: a legendary home built by Hugh Crain (Howard Lang) for his wife, though now supposedly haunted after he was plagued by the deaths of his wives.
Markway invites several people to come to the house, all in the name of studying fear specifically. Two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), along with a young man named Luke (Russ Tamblyn) come to Hill House in order for Markway to start experimenting. However, not long after her arrival Eleanor starts to lose her grip on reality. Not too long and everything begins to get more terrifying, not just for Eleanor but for every living person who comes into contact with Hill House. No telling if any of them will make it out of its walls alive.
I don’t care what anyone says, some of the old school film techniques are the best. For instance, just the way Wise creates a disorienting feeling with simple methods instead of using any elaborate effects is part of The Haunting‘s charm. Early on, after Eleanor reaches the house and everyone’s settling in, she has a sort of panic attack and the camera dips, giving us an inverted look at her as she screams out. It’s such a deceptively simple shot, but god damn if it doesn’t work proper. Even so far as very quick angles and switches of point-of-view, which Wise executes flawlessly. Particularly there’s a scene where Eleanor goes back to her room alone, lying on the bed, then the camera moves from above her looking down to a shot next to the bed, no edit. Such a smooth switch and it just has a nice look. Lots of modern horror is so concerned with pushing a scare on you and throwing it in your face. Wise lets a lot of the psychological effects of the noises, the ghostly whispers (and so on) really sit with you and he twists and turns things about as you’re sinking in it. Again, it’s the fact we’re so often thrown into Eleanor’s perspective I find the film is so creepy. You eventually get a sense of something terrifying happening, even in the times Eleanor is with someone else and the ghostly presence is banging a door or shaking something – it still feels very much like we’re riding along with her specifically. I enjoy all the characters, it’s simply the way the story is told and how Wise is able to give us such a close, intimate feeling of seeing things through her eyes.
So much of the psycho-horror comes out of the innovative filming and creative editing, such a spooky overall product. Wise deliberately wanted to throw people off, so there are cuts where characters walk through a door on the right only to enter through the left of the screen, thereby confusing any sense of understanding the layout of Hill House (so remember this people when you think about Kubrick’s The Shining). I love that because it adds another purposefully, and awesomely, eerie sense of disorientation.
One of my favourite moments in terms of technique is the staircase. We get that neat shot, strangely creepy, where the camera seems to zoom down through the stairs. As per commentary on The Haunting Blu ray, this was achieved by basically using the staircase as a dolly and sending the camera down slowly, then once in reverse the effect came out weird and highly effective. Just like another shot where Eleanor is alone, thinking to herself and letting the thoughts of dead Mrs. Crain get in her head, then the camera sort of zooms down at her from high above, her wide and screaming mouth open – then a quick cut to Dr. Markway grabbing hold so she doesn’t fall off the balcony. This quick bit is so unsettling, it draws you closer and closer towards Eleanor’s mindset.
The performances are all pretty top notch, classy style acting overall. Of course it’s Julie Harris as Eleanor who steals the show. Without her ability to portray such a damaged, fragile woman, the plot wouldn’t have been able to take hold. Not only does Wise put us in her shoes visually, her skills as an actor take us the next leap forward. She’s very quiet and subtle at moments, then others time there’s a fire inside her, in her eyes, and it rises up quickly. Harris has wonderful range and displays it, fine-tuned here.
Further than that, this movie had a great depiction of a lesbian woman for 1963. Usually there’d be a foolishly stereotypical version of a gay woman in other big films. Instead, Theodora (played by Claire Bloom) comes off elegant, feminine and not someone trying to lure the only other woman around into a sexual encounter – funny enough, the 1999 remake sort of retracted all that and made her into a hound for pussy, but whatever, that movie was awful. This one, though, it really did good things for the character. That’s just another example of a nice addition to the source material. Jackson is very, very present throughout this adaptation. But Gidding and Wise have their hands in some places where it counts, including Theodora’s character and the in-depth focus on Eleanor and her mental state.
If there were ever a quintessential haunted house-style horror movie, it is absolutely Robert Wise’s The Haunting. 5 stars, hands down. I can never see this movie enough. It’s especially good for Halloween, but every day is good for horror. This will sink in if you let it. Too many people today are getting desensitized by gore and blood. But that is not the epitome of horror. The real creepy stuff, the genuinely unsettling horror movies, they’re the ones that slowly climb into your brain and don’t let go. They’re the things made up of well crafted writing, careful direction – both in terms of cinematography, editing, and also regarding the design aspects of the house, the look of it all. The Haunting has every bit of this, and more. You need to experience this Wise masterpiece in Blu ray, it will blow your mind. Excellent horror and one hell of a classic.