The Haunting, 1963.
Directed by Robert Wise.
Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn.
A paranormal investigator gathers together a group of people to spend a night in the ominous Hill House as part of an experiment to determine if the building is haunted, oblivious to the terror that awaits them.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is often regarded as one of the greatest and most frightening horror novels ever written and one that set the gold standard for the modern haunted house story. The novel was quickly snapped up by acclaimed Oscar-winning director Robert Wise who brought Jackson’s story to the big screen as The Haunting, a film often regarded by critics and filmmakers alike as one of the scariest horror films ever made.
Using a creative combination of unusual camera placements with an emphasis on low and high angles, careful lighting choices and the innovative use of cameras that were technically not ready for use, Wise creates a disorientating visual experience that leaves you unnerved. The set design is meticulous. The ominous halls of Hill House becoming a character in itself, its seemingly ever-changing layout creating a nightmarish maze you wouldn’t want to spend one second in, let alone several nights. I especially love how certain aspects such as patterns in walls or doors are deliberately designed to resemble faces, with the camera work and lighting often emphasising these creepily human qualities of the house. The true terror of the film comes from its sound design which often breaks the long eerie silence with brief moments of deafening startling crashing sounds, giggling voices or crying children that certainly make you shiver.
My personal favourite combination of all these elements comes in a simple but unsettling scene where the characters look on in frozen terror as a wooden door bends and creak inwards as if something is forcing itself against it. The bulging creaking frame of the door looking almost alive. If there is one area that almost lets things down, it’s the music, which can often be a tad too bombastic, almost like it’s shaking the viewer while screaming: “you scared yet??”. Thankfully, many of the scariest moments are played out in near-complete silence, with only the crashing sounds of ghosts or desperate screams of the cast to break it.
The cast is excellent throughout, each actor bringing their own distinctive charm to the film. Julie Harris’s performance as Eleanor is particularly brilliant, the actress believably portraying the mental anguish of a lonely woman whose mind is already near breaking point before she even enters the haunted halls of Hill House. Harris also deserves credit for the self-inflicted pain she put herself through to give the best performance possible. Deliberately isolating herself from her co-stars off-set to feel like an outsider in every sense, creating tension with her fellow actors who were unaware of her approach. And she did all this while also suffering from severe depression, which gives her characters mental plight an element of authenticity.
The supporting also deserves praise, especially Claire Bloom as Theo, a sharp-tongued bohemian. Bloom is captivating in the role, playing it lashings of wit, charm and subtlety that makes you curious to know more about her. Bloom’s performance is also, for the time, groundbreaking in that it is heavily implied (although not spoken aloud) that Theo is a lesbian. Bloom’s scenes alongside Harris played with a deliberate sexual tension that is subtle enough to get around the censors of the time while still being overt to the point that you still notice it.
The story of The Haunting is the classic haunted house set up. So classic that, when viewed nowadays, it’s cliché. A group of researchers agree to spend several nights in a spooky old house to see if the rumours of its haunted nature are true. Of course, the house is haunted, and the ghosts are none too pleased with the living disturbing their peace. The story, while old hat, is effective in its simplicity, its relative thinness allowing for a deeper examination of the characters in between scares, making us fear for their safety when the hauntings start.
What gives The Haunting an advantage over its later imitators is that thanks to an accidental misreading of the novel by Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding, the story is transformed from an explicitly supernatural tale (as Jacksons novel is) into one about mental illness. An approach that gives the scary goings-on a layer of ambiguity, particularly with regards to the central character of Eleanor. The titular haunting is more to do with her than it does with the house, as she finds herself haunted by the memory of her unkind mother and a lack of happiness in her life.
Led by a strong performance by Julie Harris, a meticulously crafted production and a creepy story that expands upon the already terrifying novel, The Haunting is a chilling masterpiece that, while a slow burner, deserves every bit of praise it gets.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★