Monday, October 1, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE HAUNTING (1963)

Shirley Jackson is best known today for her literature anthology standard, "The Lottery," but her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is widely regarded as one of the best modern horror stories; the 1963 film adaptation, called simply The Haunting, brings Jackson's eerie tale of fear and psychological collapse onto the big screen. Like Jackson's novel and many classic horror films, The Haunting eschews concrete images of terror in favor of mounting dread and shadowy, unseen threats, and the effect is terrific. Excellent directorial work from Robert Wise and powerhouse performances from the cast combine with the film's masterful source material to make The Haunting a true classic of the genre, sure to please fans of Val Lewton's seminal work in horror and delight those who enjoy the thrills and pleasures of an old-fashioned haunted house.

Julie Harris plays Nell Lance, the emotionally unstable protagonist of this tale of terror, who has recently been liberated from a life of servitude to her bed-ridden mother by the old lady's death. Nell feels both ecstatic and guilty about her mother's demise, but, eager to seize a chance to do something different for once in her life, she signs on to assist in the paranormal research project at Hill House. The team is led by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a man who wants to prove that the supernatural is real and who thinks that dismal Hill House, with its past history of death and disaster, is just the place for his experiment. Also joining the group are the mysterious Theo (Claire Bloom) and Hill House's presumptive heir, Luke (Russ Tamblyn); once gathered, the four characters quickly find themselves experiencing very strange things indeed. Terrible noises erupt in the night, doors open and close by themselves, writing appears on walls, and cold spots chill the air in certain ominous locations. All the while, fragile Nell responds to the house's evil by becoming more and more unhinged.

Robert Wise had learned the art of horror direction under Val Lewton's astute tutelage, and that influence reveals itself very clearly in The Haunting, where shadows and inanimate objects are invested with mind-bending terror through camera angles, timing, and the characters' reactions. We never see anything really scary in Hill House, but the film constantly suggests that something awful lurks just outside our sight. The justly famous scene in which a door bends and warps in response to some supernatural pressure from the other side is an excellent example of Wise's style here. Like Nell and Theo, we pant in anticipation and horror at the idea that whatever is causing the door's mad contortion will come through and get us, but nothing Wise can show us can be as dreadful as our imagination of it. The black and white cinematography lends itself to this sort of shadow play; watch the way light and dark are used throughout the picture to enhance the idea that something unnatural and unseen lives within this house. Every room is full of statues and mirrors, so that no shot escapes from them; faces are everywhere, watching us, moving in the corners of our sight. The cluttered populations of busts and carved figures give the rooms a funereal air, like the house itself is a kind of indoor cemetery.

Wandering through this Gothic atmosphere we get Julie Harris, stiffly defensive by day in her buttoned jackets and pinned up hair, ghostly and girlish by night in a long white gown, loose tresses trailing behind her as she runs barefoot down the dark and menacing halls. Nell is brittle, sensitive, and deeply repressed, just the kind of victim on whom the house can work its spell. Singularly inexperienced in human relationships, Nell pines with schoolgirl passion for the married Markway and recoils prudishly from Theo's lesbian advances, if only because she is terrified by the feelings that Theo's attentions stir up in her. There might be a touch too much voiceover from Nell over the course of the film, but Wise is trying to remind us how much the story depends upon the secret workings of Nell's mind, and with film there's really no other way to do that.

Take time to appreciate Rosalie Crutchley’s delightfully chilling performance as the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley. Avoid the 1999 remake of the film; it leaves nothing to the imagination and functions more like an amusement park ride than a real horror film. If you like The Haunting, move backwards in time to Wise's films with Val Lewton, including The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). For what it's worth, Wise's major films before and after The Haunting were West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Perhaps it was all that singing and dancing that made him feel just a bit homicidal.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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