Haunting, The (1963)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-03-29 11:35

Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Nelson Gidding
Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, and Lois Maxwell

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.
Hill House had stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more. Silence lay steadily against the wood
and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there...walked alone.”

Today, ghost and haunted house movies are a dime a dozen, but in 1963 they were still fairly scarce. Ghosts and the supernatural had been dabbled in by Hollywood producers of the ‘old dark house’ thrillers of the 1930s and 40s, but usually, after all was said and done, the real culprit of the film was a being very much human. As Hollywood entered the 60s, low budget film producers discovered that they could stretch their dollars by creating films whose villains were largely unseen and have minimal special effects. Films like Ghosts of Hanley House and William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill sought to cash in on this concept. At the forefront of the ghost movement of the 1960s, however, was a film that stood apart from the rest, offering audiences an actual chilling story to follow and providing genuine nail-biting suspense. That film was Robert Wise’s The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

Anthropologist, Dr. John Markway, leases an old, abandoned New England house with quite an extensive history of unnatural death, murder, and suicide for a study in the supernatural. He invites a team of psychics to stay with him in the house while they conduct research, however, only two show up: Theo, whose powers of telekinesis are well-documented and Eleanor, who had an experience with a poltergeist when she was younger. The group is joined by Luke, the skeptical nephew of the house’s owner (who will someday inherit the Hill House property). Things start out fine (don’t they always) and the group is enamored by the size and beauty of Hill House. Soon, sinister forces within the house begin to prey up on Eleanor, and she slowly spirals into madness before the rest of the group. By the end of the film, there will be many more believers among them in the world of the supernatural.

The Haunting truly lives up to its reputation. If you’re into ghost and haunted house movies, this film is a must in your collection. Most haunted house and ghost movies rely on special effects, but the danger about that is that effects can become dated and sometimes laughable with time. The effects in The Haunting are so slight, that they really don’t seem dated at all. Most of the ghostly stuff happens off-camera, and you never actually see an apparition (only a bizarre ‘face’ in the wall, which could or could not be an actual face). The film’s ghost scares come from everyone’s reaction to the happenings off-camera and from the unexplained cries, screams, and monotone chanting we hear in the night…in the dark. The opening narration by Dr. Markway gives us a complete rundown of the tragic history of Hill House and it perfectly sets the ominous mood for the film to follow. From the flashbacks which accompany this opening, we get to see the various characters who fell victim to the house, and who are likely the ones haunting it (though we never see their spirits). The Haunting plays out like a well-told ghost story that you’d hear from a friend, neighbor, or family member around a campfire. From the dialogue (some of which was lifted directly from the Jackson novel) to the performances, to the atmosphere, to the direction…everything falls perfectly into place to craft one of Hollywood’s best haunted house movies. By 1963, many films were starting to be filmed in color with more frequency, and it’s an interesting, and ultimately perfect choice for Wise to have shot the film in black and white. Something about the medium allows for a greater focus on sound and setting. Director Robert Wise has had a varied career. He's directed everything from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to sci-fi epics (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Andromeda Strain). He only returned to horror in 1977 with the Anthony Hopkins vehicle, Audrey Rose.

The Eleanor character is the most tragic, for it is her own fears and self-doubt that provides the most fuel for the house’s activities. Theo is, perhaps, the only one who can see what Eleanor is really thinking, sometimes speaking for her what she was just about to say. There is also a slightly lesbian vibe given off from Theo, who is all too happy to share a room with Eleanor and often looks at her longingly. Whether this was intended, I’m not sure, but the subtle vibe is definitely there. Dr. Markway is played very straight by Richard Johnson, an actor who would later show up in the Lucio Fulci masterpiece of splatter, Zombie. Luke is playfully played by actor Russ Tamblyn; who, twenty years later, would become better known to fans of the short-lived cult TV series, Twin Peaks. James Bond fans will notice a small role later on by the original Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell. For a haunted house film to work, though, the house itself must become a character or adversary for the human characters to overcome. From the exterior and interior decoration, to the feeling of dread that is evoked from the nighttime glimpses of its staircases and hallways, Hill House truly seems to have a life of its own.

The most effective scene occurs when Eleanor is awakened by the sounds of a screaming child and a low, monotone adult voice almost chanting in the hall outside her door. A face-like image then appears in the wall. Very subtle, very spooky stuff. The conclusion to the scene is the most chilling of all, and I won’t spoil it here. Though the film at times walks the line of “Is Hill House really haunted or was it all in Eleanor’s head?”, by the end of the film, there are little doubts. Hill House, a house that was “born bad” is truly disturbed. Even the skeptical characters are won over by this inevitability by the film’s end. What is unique about the film is that there is no direct provocation of the spirits of the house. There are no silly scenes of séances or attempts to call upon the deceased. The spirits simply begin acting up to the mere presence of Dr. Markway’s visitors, which I think, is scarier. If you know that ghosts will leave you alone unless you somehow summon them or whatever, then, just don’t summon them. You won’t be harmed. But ghosts, who react by your just being there, that is truly spooky and unsettling. It’s the kind of concept that makes someone not even want to set foot inside a house that is even slightly rumored to be haunted.

The Haunting is one of the best paranormal movies ever made, if not THE best. It’s one of my all-time personal favorites, right up there with The Changeling and The Uninvited. I also highly recommend fans of horror fiction seeking out the original Shirley Jackson novel. It’s very similar to the finished film, but definitely one of the best books about a haunted house ever written. If you’re into the more campy and fun 60s ghost flicks, stick with House on Haunted Hill, but for anyone who wants to see a well-told haunted house story, they must look no further than this film. It truly delivers. Because of director Robert Wise's death in 2005, picking up the DVD is a no-brainer, for it contains an audio commentary with himself, writer Nelson Gidding, and actors Russ Tamblyn, Richard Johnson, Julie Harris, and Claire Bloom. Truly, one of the most complete audio commentaries for any horror film currently on DVD. Stay away from the 1999 remake by Speed director, Jan De Bont. It’s far too slickly produced, poorly directed and filled with very obvious CGI effects. The original Hill House has all sorts of surprises in store for the viewer, and they will soon see why it’s considered such a classic. Lower the lights and then light a candle or two, for this one is highly recommended for all horror fans young and old. Adding The Haunting to your collection is very much Essential!

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