Saturday, June 16, 2012

THE HAUNTING 1963

"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.
"It was an evil house from the beginning....a house that was Born Bad."
Hill House, the monumentally creepy estate that serves as The Haunting's setting. The mansion is supposed to be located in Boston, but filming took place in the UK and Ettigton Hall (now a hotel) was used for exteriors.

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
Obviously not one to enjoy a little downtime, director Robert Wise, between the mammoth West Side Story (1961) and elephantine The Sound of Music (1965), directed two comparatively small features: the off-beat romance, Two for the Seesaw, and the modern Gothic ghost story, The Haunting. The latter, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, has a premise that is simplicity itself: four disparate strangers forced to spend time together in one incredibly creepy house with an unsavory past.
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. 
It's not difficult to take note of parallels to Stephen King's Carrie when we hear about Eleanor's back story (repressed youth, social outcast, an unexplained  hail of stones raining on the family house for several days, possible unacknowledged psychic ability). She even has a sister named Carrie!,

PERFORMANCES:
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.

"To my new companion!"
The stylish Theodora makes the first of several passes at the not-completely-in-the-dark Eleanor.
Claire Bloom is marvelously cool and feline as, if not the first sympathetic lesbian in a major motion picture, then certainly the most unapologetic and self-assured. The scenes between Boom and Harris are virtuoso.

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

13 comments:

  1. Far better than that dismal remake

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    1. You said it. That film was like a catalog of every bad thing about remakes.

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  2. I love this movie, which I think is truly frightening. One of its most ingenious aspects is Wise's use of sound to create terror (the mysterious, horrible poundings, the imperfectly-heard voices). Since you never SEE what causes the disturbance, your imagination is left free to run riot as to what's behind it all.

    I agree with both you and the previous comment that the remake was simply awful, and it grossly distorted Shirley Jackson's novel. Speaking of gross, I think you're right about modern horror's lazy reliance on gore for its shock effects. Maybe filmmakers should trust audiences to have more intelligence.

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    1. Hi GOM! Yes, the use of sound in this film is really effective. It still amazes me that Robert Wise and company had such faith in the material and the intelligence of the audience to not have to explain and show everything. It's a quality very rare in film nowadays.

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  3. Ken, I also didn't see this film until many years after its release (and also on TCM), and I came away from viewing it as big a fan as you appear to be. When you wrote that the film "is as much an incisive character study or psychological thriller as ghost story," you summed up its strengths nicely. Director Wise, who worked at RKO in the 40s and even directed several movies for horror film producer Val Lewton, applied Lewton's "less is more" concept of horror to this film to remarkable effect. By making the horror implicit and ambiguous, he achieved the same effect as "The Innocents," which I highly recommend you watch post haste. Both films drew upon novels by masterful writers who used the same approach, so that probably helped shape their style.

    As for Harris, I've long been a fan, recalling her from "East of Eden," a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version of "The Heiress," and other roles. But I was still surprised at how good she is in this film, and I think you're right to say she's the center of the film. For me, her performance here and Deborah Kerr's in "The Innocents" are two of the great film performances by an actress.

    I found your meditation on the differences in the way you perceived the film as a 10-year old and as an adult fascinating. And your idea that horror films have lost their subtlety by catering to the gross-out desires of the youth audience is a valid one, I think.

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    1. Hi, R.D.
      Thanks again for another informative and thoughtful comment. I read Jackson's "The Haunting" for the first time just before writing this post, and you're right, the ambiguous horror style of the book influences the film completely. I have a paperback copy of "The Turn of the Screw" which I'll read after I see "the Innocents." Thanks for mentioning Wise's history with Lewton. TCM (again...that network is like a film school) introduced me to Lewton's films, and it's fairly startling how effective they remain today.

      I like Julie Harris a great deal, but never saw her in the TV adaptation of "The Heiress" (sounds right up my alley. How did I miss it?)
      I've heard that one of her more interesting against-type castings was as Sally Bowles in Isherwood's "I Am a Camera," but I've never seen it. Have you?

      I think the contemporary decline in movie horror reflects a similar decline in motion picture comedy. Both strike me as spectacularly difficult to get right, yet they seem to attract filmmakers who are rather glib and simplistic in their approach, and delusionally confident in their abilities.

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    2. Ken, I've been looking for "I Am a Camera" for ages, but Netflix doesn't have it, and I don't believe it's even available on DVD, at least not Region 1 DVD. Another thing of interest about the film is that Laurence Harvey plays the Christopher Isherwood part. Shelley Winters is in it too.

      Another favorite Julie Harris performance of mine is as a 12-year old (sounds strange, but she's convincing) in 1952's "Member of the Wedding," based on the short novel by Carson McCullers (so you know it has an element of strangeness). Ethel Waters and a "Shane"-era Brandon de Wilde are in it too. Harris got a best actress Oscar nomination for it.

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    3. Yes, "I Am a Camera" has a very impressive cast that would be really marvelous to see. Given how Harris won the Tony award for originating the role on stage, it's hard to imagine (unless the film is lost) some distributor not wanting to release the film on DVD.
      I saw "Member of the Wedding" for the first time about three years ago when I was on a Carson McCullers kick, and enjoyed Harris in the role a great deal. So far I can't think of anything I've seen her in that hasn't been made more interesting because of her.

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    4. I Am A Camera is available on TPB, torrent 7505360

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  4. I must be one of the latest to the party as I only saw this movie for the first time less than a year ago! I'd heard about it for ages, of course. It was shown on one of my high-def channels in widesreen, for which I was grateful... that sharp b & w photography looked amazing.

    I enjoyed everyone in it, and thought Harris was wondrous, but my favorite was Claire Bloom because it felt like her character - simultaneously predatory and caring - leapt off the screen, it was so vivid for the time. Loved her look, too, with those Mary Quant clothes.

    I felt maybe Robert Wise's experience as an editor might have helped him to know how to build suspense, too. The backstory of the acting is quite surprising as well. For example, Harris and Wise didn't see eye to eye on how her character should be, but she acquiesed to his viewpoint out of respect, yet had trouble doing so. Then there was her refusal to interact with Bloom off-set, which was later revealed to be a "choice" of hers to maintain unfamiliarity, but which baffled and upset Bloom at the time. These things have subtle effects on the finished work, I'm sure.

    Reportedly, Harris later said (about five decades later!) that she was disappointed in her performance because it was too ordinary and not "odder," but I disagree. She brings to the table a certain level of forlorn uniqueness that was all it really needed (IMHO!)

    Thanks for a great post! (Poseidon3)

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  5. Hi Poseidon!
    We must have been channeling one another, as I had just been trying to catch up on the slew of recent posts on your site that I've missed (the Father's Day post being particularly good). neptsdepths.blogspot.com

    I agree with you about Claire Bloom, and in fact wrote a considerable amount on her but edited out for length. She is really marvelous. A very ahead-of-its-time portrayal, and, as you point out, disarmingly complex. She IS both predatory and caring. More backstory to her and and her partner is given in the book. I think you'd like it.

    I'm also glad you mentioned the behind the scenes stuff, which is pretty fascinating (one DVD release has great commentary by all the lead actors). I agree with you that Harris is pretty flawless here and I wish she'd gone into more detail about how much her interpretation of the character differed from Wise's. Eleanor seems pretty odd already. Thanks again for the kind words and for your well-informed observations!

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  6. I was invited to the special studio screening for MGM personnel since I was an extra actor in several of MGM TV's series shows. I did not know what to expect and was amazed at how scared I was WITHOUT seeing one ghost, monster, etc.!!!
    It is a masterpiece of suspense and not over-the-top special effects that produce the terror. Marc Wanamaker

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    1. Hi Marc
      How enviable to have been one of the first to have seen this film. What a thrilling experience that must have been!
      Your assessment of the merits of "The Haunting" reflect what has come to be the film's legacy. I only wish more filmmakers studied its artful application of mood, suspense, and bloodless terror.
      So appreciate your sharing your experience. The Old Hollywood stories you must have! Thanks!

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