"The dead are not quiet in Hill House."
As a child, I tried watching The Haunting one evening when it aired on network television, but I don’t think I lasted more than 20 minutes…if that. Then more accustomed to the get-right-down-to-business directness of Creature Features–style horror movies, The Haunting’s deliberate pacing and leisurely approach to character and mood severely taxed my ten-year-old attention span.
It wasn’t until a 1999 screening of The Haunting on TCM (to coincide with the theatrical release of the atrocious mega-budget, CGI-laden remake) that I opted to give the film another look. Well, the passing years must have worked its alchemy on either the movie or me, for this time out The Haunting held me in rapt fascination in front of the TV set (do they even call them that anymore?), caught up in 112 of the sharpest, most enjoyably tense minutes of movie terror I can recall.
What was tedious and meandering to me as a child was absorbing and spooky as hell as an adult. The characters involved me, the psychological/paranormal uncertainties intrigued me, and I especially responded to the inherent risk in making a haunted house film that dares you to take it seriously. The screenplay doesn't insult one’s intelligence nor do the actors play down to the genre. Best of all: the thrills contained in The Haunting extend so far beyond its ghostly surprises that a great deal of pleasure is derived from rewatching the film just to see the interplay of the characters. The performances are that good and that detailed.
When I think of how often it is I find myself, as an adult, at the polar-opposite end of some aesthetic bias I held in my youth, I can’t help but wonder to what degree American cinema has suffered over the years in so doggedly courting the youth market (The Avengers, The Hunger Games). Movies today are bigger, louder, faster, to be sure (e.g., The Haunting remake), but how good can they be when the whole of the criteria by which they hold themselves to are the ADD standards of the texting/tweeting generation?
|Julie Harris as Eleanor Lance|
|Claire Bloom as Theodora|
|Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway|
|Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sanderson|
|Lois Maxwell (Bond's Miss Moneypenny) as Mrs. Markway|
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), eager-beaver anthropologist and self-styled supernatural sleuth, invites several “assistants” to participate in an investigation of paranormal activity in what is believed to be an actual haunted house. Of the several invited to join (culled from a list of subjects “…touched in some way by the supernatural”), only two show up: stylish ESP whiz, Theodora —“Theodora…just Theodora.” — (Claire Bloom), and the emotionally fragile spinster, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris). On hand as a kind of drowsy chaperone to the proceedings is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), born skeptic and nephew to the owner of Hill House. What follows is as much an incisive character study or psychological thriller as ghost story.
|Cast of The Haunting|
Somewhere on the path towards toward chasing the easy dollar, directors of horror films seem to have forgotten that horror is not exactly synonymous with gore. (What am I saying? Forgot gives too much credit. What we’re talking here is incompetence and a lack of talent. Gross-out horror is simply easier.) The sense of dread and equilibrium-rattling unease at the core of every great thriller comes from an understanding of that unique quirk of the human mind that makes it possible for a person to scare the hell out of themselves with just the slightest assist from outside stimuli.
The Haunting is famous (and rightly so) for being one of the finest screen examples of nail-biting terror with nary a drop of blood or ANYTHING being shown. I’ve never seen the 1961 film, The Innocents (recommended by a reader of this blog, it’s at last on my DVR queue…thank you TCM!) but I understand that it succeeds in much the same way. Through the employment moodily atmospheric lighting, evocative music, crazily subjective camera angles, and top-grade performances from its impressive cast, The Haunting builds and sustains such a high level of wariness and suspense that it fairly gets under your (crawling) skin before you realize it.
|The Haunting is a great deal of scary fun|
How The Haunting achieves this is rather uncanny, for I’m sure the experience is different for each viewer. In my case, returning to the film after so many years, during which time I’d been exposed to such seminal horror masterpieces as The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, et.al., I had essentially cast myself in the know-it-all skeptic role that West Side Story’s Russ Tamblyn handles so well. I honestly didn’t think a 35-year-old horror film could pack much punch, and I was only motivated to try The Haunting again because I was so excited about the remake (mostly because of Lili Taylor. Alas, that film found a way of squandering even her talent).
But what took me by surprise in seeing The Haunting again after so long was how it never felt in the least bit dated, and how the overall intelligent approach to the material struck me as almost startlingly rare. It reminded me of what I love in Polanski thrillers and typifies the best in the films of Val Lewton (Cat People, The Seventh Victim).
|"There won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't hear you...in the night. No one could...in the dark...."|
Terrifically ghoulish housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley)
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
A director with a little imagination can bring quite a lot to a genre film if he/she is willing to have fun with its conventions. Horror films are notoriously plot-driven, moving its characters about like game pieces, all in service of coincidence-heavy story machinations. Although a standard ghost story in many ways, The Haunting feels like a different breed of animal entirely, due to the degree of depth it goes into with its characters. Asked to contemplate the possible connection between the escalating intensity of the “haunting” to the gradual dismantling of a character’s psychological state, it’s amazing how chilling a simple, bloodless horror film can be when we’re made aware of the vulnerable humanity of the protagonists.
I haven’t seen a great deal of Julie Harris’ work, but from the looks of it she was the go-to-gal for repressed, emotionally delicate types. It’s certainly easy to understand why, and by no means is pointing that out a diminution of her talent. In fact, she is to be commended on her consistent ability to add dimension to roles that must appear on paper to be of a rather limited emotional palate. As Eleanor, she is, dramatically speaking, the very center of The Haunting and it’s through her touching and enigmatic performance (is she mad? Possessed?) that the film draws us in. On repeat viewings it becomes clearer what a superbly rounded a character Harris creates in Eleanor. A sad, lonely woman of bottled-up, barely understood emotions, Eleanor can be by turns charming, determined, dreamy, and petulant; all adding up to the kind of realistic characterization necessary to add verisimilitude to The Haunting’s Gothic mayhem.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The Haunting is unequivocally and most emphatically a ghost story, but I like how
the film allows for the ambiguous intermingling of the psychological and supernatural. Eleanor’s precarious mental state is revealed to us through the extensive use of first-person voiceover, but this extra-sensory intimacy device only makes us more unsure about what she thinks is real and what is imagined. As Eleanor’s emotions intensify, there’s the feeling that she is perhaps suffering some kind of mental breakdown; practically willing Hill House to be the beckoning destiny she simultaneously fears and desires. Other times, Hill House (always spoken of in terms usually reserved for a living thing) feels as if it is feeding upon and growing stronger from fears and weaknesses of its inhabitants.
In balancing these complimentary/conflicting realities, The Haunting arrives at a narrative structure that mirrors the discordant perspectives of its characters—the realists: Luke & Mrs. Markway; the psychics: Eleanor& Theodora; and the scientist: Dr. Markway.
Small wonder that The Haunting's reputation as one of the most effective horror films ever made continues to grow with each passing year. Every time I watch it I discover something new. And sometimes, if I really allow myself to get swept up in the ghost story, I can still find myself experiencing the odd goosebump chill as that massive old house goes into its act.
Copyright © Ken Anderson