The Haunting (1963)

29 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When people ask me what my favorite horror film is, I guess they would expect me to say “Halloween” or “The Exorcist.” And while I do love those movies and they, along with “Psycho” for instance, would be in my top-five of the genre, I say that my favorite in the genre is definitely “The Haunting.” And the trouble is, I always have to back up that title by labeling it “the Robert Wise haunted-house film from the 1960s” because I know that they’re thinking of the other “The Haunting” (the 1999 Jan De Bont remake of the 1963 film with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones). I’ll have something to say about the remake later and why it definitely doesn’t work in comparison to its predecessor, but I truly love the original film. In fact, I love it so much to admit that it’s just my favorite scary film—it’s one of my all-time favorite movies.

“The Haunting” is a superb, gorgeously-shot, very well thought-out chiller that uses psychological tension and character development in the same concepts of mystery and atmosphere. It takes place in a haunted house—Hill House, to be exact—and it’s about a group of characters who would like to investigate the supernatural occurrences of such a place but get much more than they expected. That premise sounds pretty simple, but Wise’s direction, along with great cinematography as well as great acting, makes it far more than what it could have been. Even if you don’t really find it very scary (it depends on whether or not you accept the “less is more” aspect—I’ll explain later in this review), it’s still a gripping psychological thriller, Gothic story, and character study.

“The Haunting” begins with an opening narration over a shot of an ominous-looking mansion in the night, and right away, the narration sets up the premise in a most interesting way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a depiction of a haunted house, or rather just exploring a haunted house, has ever been put in a better way. “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there…walked alone.” And when the intellectual voice of Richard Johnson puts it like that, I think I might follow him as well as those his character, Dr. John Markway, are brought into his experiment. And yes, his experiment is simply to investigate any sort of paranormal activity while spending several nights in Hill House. The house is full of history that connects to further evidence that it may be haunted, which fascinates him even more. He wants to know if everything he’s heard and studied is as real as it may seem.

Brought in on the project are Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), clairvoyant Theodora “Theo” (Claire Bloom), and the house’s cynical new heir, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn). Eleanor, in particular, is our main focus of the film, as we hear her inner thoughts a good amount of time and has the most compelling character arc of the group. She’s a meek, insecure, guilt-ridden woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother until her death, leading to further severe guilt that she has to deal with everyday. She seeks to belong somewhere with somebody, which is why she does take a chance and leaves her sister’s apartment (where she sleeps on the couch), and steals her sister’s car to make her way to Hill House, where she is finally expected somewhere.

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Hill House itself is a marvel to look at. It’s a large, maze-like mansion that looks like a Gothic castle, with many secrets and unsettling decorations and such. Among the most notable unsettling locations in the house is the library, which features a tall, spiraling staircase that is very rickety and unsafe. The exteriors and interiors of Hill House are just extraordinary and the whole place gives off a creepy vibe. You definitely can tell that something is not quite right with this place. Eleanor notices this upon first arriving, thinking to herself that “it’s looking at me” and if she goes into this house, she’s afraid she won’t come out the same way. But she does come inside, get to know Markway, Theo, and Luke, and surely enough, many strange things occur with apparent supernatural forces at work here.

But how much of the supernatural is actually “supernatural?” We spend so much time with Eleanor and we know that she isn’t quite mentally-stable because of her insecurities that sometimes take her over, so you have to wonder just how much of this ghost-story is actual ghosts and how much of it is actually in Eleanor’s mind. It’s evident that ghosts are real in these surroundings, as Eleanor is not the only one to experience these happenings. But what about when she explores the house herself and feels herself to be more at home, in a way depicted creepier than it sounds? Is she being controlled by the paranormal forces, is she letting in to her hopes of belonging somewhere, are her insecurities getting the very best of her? I won’t go into too much detail about what I get out of the connection between her and Hill House, but trust me when I say it’s an excellent psychological study. And that this is a character who seeks redemption and acceptance within a haunted house makes it even more unnerving.

It’s hard to pick my favorite “scary moment,” as most people choose their own favorite scary moments from their favorite horror films (the opening in “Halloween,” the exorcism in “The Exorcist,” the shower scene in “Psycho,” and so on). There are literally more than I could think of right off the bat, and oddly enough, every time I watch the movie again, I find myself unnerved throughout the whole movie because of those many moments. To name some of these scenes, I’d start with the introduction in which we see in flashback (with help of Dr. Markway’s narration) the past historic happenings of Hill House (suicide, accidents, etc.)—it’s a great opening and also very well-crafted in how it’s able to set up the environment and build up suspense for the rest of the story, and of course quite unnerving. There’s the first occurrence on the characters’ first night in Hill House, as Eleanor and Theo are frightened by loud, pounding noises coming from outside their bedroom and hold onto one another in fear—the terror is genuine and the scares come as unexpected so that the characters’ fear becomes ours, because we know just about as much as they do. Most memorably, arguably, is the scene in which Eleanor awakens at night to hear what sounds like a child being beaten and crying in pain. She wants to yell but is too afraid to, and she holds hands with Theo who is obviously as frightened as she is because, as we hear through Eleanor’s inner thoughts, she is holding on to her hand a little too tightly. When she finally yells “STOP IT!” and the lights turn on, she looks to see that…nobody was holding her hand the whole time. This is a perfect “scary moment”—the buildup, the tension, and the payoff are all very well-handled, making the standard-but-needed question “Whose hand was I holding” seem all the more impactful. There are many more moments like that in this movie. And do I even need to mention that the aforementioned “tall, spiraling staircase” comes into place for a crucial moment later?

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One major important aspect of “The Haunting” is simply pure terror, in that it’s really the things that you don’t see that scare you. indeed, there is no monster or blood and gore or any visible ghosts present at all throughout the entire movie (unlike the remake, which used endless amounts of CGI, completely missing the point of “less is more”). It’s all psychological and we can imagine what we think are making all those noises that we (and the characters) hear. (Also, there are hardly any special effects in the movie, with the exception of a door bending due to whatever is outside pushing in on it.) This is pretty much on the same level of feeling like you’re alone in a room and you’re shocked because there’s a sudden knock at the door. It’s that kind of tension that is evident throughout “The Haunting.”

The casting of the four principal roles is spot-on. Julie Harris is excellent as Eleanor, creating a believable portrait of an odd, meek woman who is possibly misguided to find a place to feel accepted. It’s a great performance and it makes “The Haunting” more of a character study than a haunted-house story. Richard Johnson is also great as Dr. Markway, a man who could convince you to jump off a cliff if he found a solid reasoning behind it. I love the way he puts the supernatural occurrences most of us have heard of, particularly the difference between “ghosts” and “ghouls.” Claire Bloom makes Theo her own character and also gives a certain indication that she might actually be a lesbian, which could explain why she acts the way she does toward Eleanor (compassion mixed with teasing most of the time) and also would give another disturbing sense in the scenes when they’re the only ones in a room together. Bloom makes risky decisions with this role, but they’re never over-the-top and are played effectively. I even enjoyed Russ Tamblyn’s comic relief—as Luke, Tamblyn plays a man who doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the phenomena; he’s just protecting his investment after being left the house and simply enjoys poking fun at whatever experience or little detail that the other characters bring up. He’s a smooth, wisecracking guy who likes to drink and crack jokes (“This ghost I can expect in my room tonight—is it male or female?”), which makes his ultimate belief in what’s really happening here all the more effective because all this time, he has served as a representation for some of the more cynical audience members. When he finally seems as scared as everyone else, it’s believable.

The filmmaking serves as another reason “The Haunting” works as well as it does. A good number of shots in this movie looks like it’s been fully prepared for first, so that we feel a hint of unease and also fascination. Even the reaction shots, which are mostly thankless, say something about the consistency—some of them are even at low angles with characters on either the right or left side of the screen. With a location as grand as Hill House, it’s important to know how to frame certain shots and Robert Wise obviously went out of his way to create something unique.

“The Haunting” is undoubtedly my favorite horror film. Its scares are more than effective because of how much its psychological terror works well. The themes are very well-presented. The depictions of the “haunted” aspects of this house and the occurrences are fascinating to listen to. The lead character of Eleanor is a great character for this sort of story. And it fascinates me and of course continues to scare me every time I watch it. It’s a well-crafted, excellent chiller.

NOTE: I mentioned the brilliant opening lines earlier in this review. I should also add that the similar-sounding ending lines are even more chilling, particularly because of who says them.

OTHER NOTE: If you want a perfect side-by-side comparison of both the original and the remake (and why one works and the other doesn’t), check out this Nostalgia Critic video-review on Blip: http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nostalgia-critic-the-haunting-5634970

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