Rob Walker reviews The Haunting

The Haunting 112 min., 1963
Written by Nelson Gidding
Directed by Robert Wise
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★★

A classic, evil old house movie – the kind some people call haunted – is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.

* * *

Dated films are a strange thing.  Here’s a movie made over a half century ago.  Shot in black and white.  No gore.  And barely a ghost to be seen.  And yet, if you’re a horror fan, odds are you’ve seen it.  I’m talking about The Haunting.  It doesn’t get any better – or more influential – than this.  If you’ve read Stephen King?  You’ve read The Haunting.  If you’ve seen Evil Dead II or The 6th Sense?  You’ve seen The Haunting.  And anyone who remembers the early 90s CD-ROM puzzle game, The 7th Guest?  Well, you played The Haunting too.  The film’s influence has extended to names like Raimi, Shyamalan, Amenábar, Ti West, and Guillermo del Toro — who recently selected the book as a mainstay in his classic horror anthology for Penguin Publishing.  It is the gold stand of haunted house films.  And, much like the Shirley Jackson book that it’s based on, belongs on any shelf next to classics like the Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe, Frankenstein, and Dracula.

Richard Johnson stars as anthropologist Dr. Markway, who recaps Hill House’s history with ghoulish delight.  It seems, as the good doctor puts it, that “some houses are born bad.”  Right from the beginning, all who enter the house die strange or unnatural deaths – each one filmed with a Hitchcockian flair.  Fast forward to a deal he makes with the house’s absentee owner.  She reluctantly agrees to allow him and three other guests (Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and her nephew, Luke) to investigate the matter by staying there for some time.

From there, the film turns to Eleanor (Julie Harris), a mentally tortured woman who’s spent most of her life caring for her sick mother.  In a scant few minutes, the film reveals everything we need to know about her: she’s socially awkward, dresses like a Bible camp student, feels trapped by a sister who runs her life, is blamed for her mother’s death, pegged as an attention seeking mental incompetent, and can’t borrow the car to participate in the experiment.  To add insult to injury, even the bratty niece gets in on the action.  Everything about this scene works, right down to the obnoxious kid’s music playing on the record player.  It’s emotionally charged and unsettling.  Clearly, this place and these people are Eleanor’s hell and it’s easy to see why.

After Eleanor escapes by stealing the family car, she drives to Hill House – her meandering internal monologue so loud that it could put David Lynch’s DUNE to shame.  This is what she wanted, the voices in her head say.  Now she’ll finally have her moment in the sun.  Maybe even fall in love?  Clearly this is fantasy.  And her desire reflects a desperate need to find refuge – almost echoing Marion Crane’s similar drive in Psycho.  Of course, she’ll get more than she bargained for.

After a scene stealing scene from the creepy caretakers (Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the cantankerous Dudleys), Eleanor meets up with Theo, played with deliciously cat-like grace by Claire Bloom.  Instantly, Eleanor is outclassed.  Theo relishes in being the sort of person that Eleanor isn’t.  She’s confident, fashionable, a worldly urbanite who knows what she wants and how to get it.  Instantly, Theo pegs Eleanor as a sort of special “project.”  And the film turns their relationship into a twisted game of Gothic Mean Girls meets Clueless.  Clearly, there’s a lesbian subtext here.  But the film was made in 1963, and you had better odds of seeing Technicolor unicorns galloping down the streets and blowing Leprechauns out their nose than seeing a live lesbian on the screen.  So director Robert Wise had to make do with some subtlety.

The final guest, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), is the sort of smarmy, Ivy League wise-ass that would be right at home in something like The Social Network.  Always mixing drinks, always playing cards, always making fun of the doctor — he’s the film’s one comedic out in an otherwise twisted setup.

From there, things slowly spiral out of control as the haunting – real or imagined – seeks to drive them apart.  And wow.  Does it.  Future tip for ghost hunters: don’t populate your investigations with human train wrecks.  But I digress.

There’s so much brilliance to this movie that it’s hard to know where to start.  The direction by Robert Wise is near flawless.  In a career spanning decades, he edited Citizen Kane and directed everything from The Sound of Music, Curse of the Cat People, West Side Story, The Body Snatcher, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Here, at the height of his game, he manages to pull out four stunning performances from his actors.  Julie Harris, in particular, sticks out as a woman shut out from society and unhinged by her desperate attempts to belong to a clique.  Her bipolar performance tows a frayed line between naïve, sad, endearing, fuming, hysterical, and catatonic.  Claire Bloom imbues Theo with a sharp, manipulative glare that could send even the ghosts of Hill House running.  Her catty exchanges with Eleanor are both touching one moment and cold and vindictive the next.  And then there’s Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway, trying desperately to navigate the stormy waters of the unfolding supernatural psychodrama with the help of his tweed jacket and Ned Flanders mustache.  Perhaps a little too drunk on his own Kool-Aid, his absentminded enthusiasm may prove a costly mistake.  Russ Tamblyn’s role as Luke also deserves a mention.  Roles like “skeptic” or “comic relief” aren’t normally forgiving, especially for someone fresh out of West Side Story.  But here he does both.  And part of the fun comes from watching his “whatever” attitude slowly transform in the film’s final, terrifying act.  His line — “Hey, doc?  I’ll let you have the house cheap.” — is one of the best lines uttered in any movie, period.  And it’s delivered with perfect comedic timing.

And then there’s the unsung actor: Hill House.  The House truly comes alive.  It glares with sunken eyes carved from darkened windows.  It broods with every sighing woodwind and growling brass from Humphrey Searle’s moody, suffocating score.  Every shot, often at odd angles or in the shadows, reveals claustrophobic rooms with statues hiding in every corner.  Mirrors reflect moving curtains, closing doors, and guests gliding just out of sight.  This is a film filled with stuff.  Lots and lots of STUFF.  And it’s all designed to trick the eyes into thinking they’re seeing something, like the poor guests trapped within.  Practical camera effects, many of which were later borrowed by greats like Sam Raimi, twist and turn and manipulate the screen into distorted images.  There’s hardly ever a shot where something doesn’t seem “off” somehow.

Just as much care went into the sound design.  The whole thing plays like the world’s best Halloween mix tape: wind cascading down hallways, weird moans, twisted laughs, animalistic growls, and a pounding — that damn pounding!  It shatters the walls and the tears down the psyches of its victims.  For a film where the ghosts go mostly unseen, it’s relentless.  The terror is what lies on the other side of the door.  “In the night, in the dark…” – as the Dudleys put it.  The noises stir the imagination in a way that simple jump scares and gore can’t.  True terror, as any child hiding under the covers can tell you, comes from inside the head.

And there’s a lot of psychology to chew on as well.  Eleanor has unresolved dead mommy issues.  Theo has emotional baggage from a previous relationship.  Eleanor also has a thing for Markway.  Theo has a thing for Eleanor.  So Theo is jealous of Markway.  But Eleanor is jealous of Markway’s late arriving wife.  Markway’s disapproving wife wants to destroy his research to save his reputation.  Luke seems somewhat smitten with Theo, but is a fast learner (really, he’s just in it for the house and its inexhaustible booze collection).  And like sands in the hour glass, these are the Days of Our Lives!  It’s enough to make Freud swallow his cigar.  Bafflingly overrated films like The Innkeepers could do a lot better if they followed this movie’s example.  Note to Ti West: Shouting “Boo!” doesn’t amount to much when the characters have already put you to sleep.  There has to be an investment.  Atmosphere alone can’t do it.  Questions don’t always need to be answered, but the substance has to be buried underneath.

The Haunting accomplishes this and then some.  It’s insanely complex.  The house plays like a metaphor for its inhabitants’ minds: sickeningly beautiful, lost, and twisted.  The enduring mystery of the tragic play that unfolds within its upright walls is simply — who is responsible for it?  Is it truly haunted?  Is history repeating itself?  Is there a conspiracy within the group?  Or is it something activated by Eleanor’s mind?  A sort of dark, psychic wish fulfillment?

Draw your own conclusion.

Because the only hand this film will hold might not be of this world.

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One Response to Rob Walker reviews The Haunting

  1. nicholasmax says:

    *gold standard. Because I can.

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