Take The Haunting, for example. This is a deep, rich and terrifying Haunted House film that is not at all short on its deeply frightening moments through and through. Of course, this one wasn't rated PG! Although this 1963 film was released five years before the standard MPAA ratings system, upon its re-release in 1973, The Haunting was rated... G! Amazing, isn't it? Especially considering how terrifying the film truly is. But, to be fair, in Great Britain it was RATED X!!!
What is it about The Haunting that makes it so effective? The quickest, easiest answer is that it's based on the great Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. However, it was also realized by a great creative team starting with screenwriter Nelson Gidding, whose dialogue is hip, realistic and tense at all the right times. Naturally, the name Robert Wise has graced a number of great films, and no two quite like each other. As director of The Haunting, Wise brings a wealth of filmmaking prowess that helped create works like The Body Snatcher and West Side Story with equal aplomb. Perhaps it's the stark and cold black and white The Haunting was filmed in, the cinematography by Davis Boulton, the creepy musical score by Humphrey Searle, the accompanying special sound effects by Desmond Briscoe or the great cast assembled by Irene Howard. The truth is, Wise combines all of these elements into a truly chilling film that most certainly reflects the time in which it was made, but also withstands the test of time to remain a great haunted house movie today!
We're introduced to Hill House through the opening narration of Richard Johnson's Doctor John Markway, who brings us through the haunting history of this "Deranged House"! Said to be born bad, the house was built by wealthy Hugh Crain (Howard Lang) and immediately began claiming lives through generation after generation. Eventually, no one wants to go near the house, especially not at night.
Markway, however, has the brilliant idea of assembling a team of six people who have experienced the supernatural to stay a few nights in the house, braving the alleged horrors until they can either prove or disprove the existence of the, as Markway calls it, "Preternatural".
Unfortunately for him, out of the team of six, four back out. The only two left are a beautiful psychic Lesbian who calls herself Theo (Claire Bloom) and a disturbed woman named Eleanor 'Nell' Lance (Julie Harris) who spent the last eleven years caring for her now-deceased mother and hasn't had any kind of life for over a decade. Oh, and before that she had a bona fide Poltergeist experience, which, Markway believes, qualifies her to be one of his ghost hunters. To round out the foursome, Luke Sanderson (well-played by a young Russ Tamblyn) accompanies the group. As the heir to the family who currently owns Hill House, he uses the opportunity to both make sure the house isn't damaged and decide just what he can do with it to maximize profit.
While Luke remains aloof and comical, Markway tries to maintain his clinical seriousness. Meanwhile Theo goes from sexy, lustful fashionista to sarcastic academic to terrified clairvoyant. However, Theo is a model of stoic stability compared to Nell. Nell is often terrified out of her wits, but almost immediately decides that she loves the place and wants to stay, then feels her solace only around Theo, followed by a bout of homophobic disgust for all things Theo. As haunted as Hill House may be, Nell herself is even more haunted by her past, her present, her future and her mother... not to mention her schoolgirl crushes which lead to yet another valley for her when Markway's wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) shows up.
If the film has a main character (aside from the house itself), Nell is it. Markway's narration quickly gives way to Nell's own internal monologue which is every bit as mixed up as her external actions are. Believing that the house is indeed haunted (a fact which, admittedly, terrifies her) Nell also feels that this is the only thing that has ever happened to her and being wanted by the house is at least being wanted, right? Right.
While it's true that the house does seem to want Nell specifically, Nell is by no means alone in the attentions of the house (or whatever the hell is in it). The other five players experience their own hell as the place seems to come to life. Just what is going on in the house is the real mystery. We know that the house is vast, that its doors close on their own (when nobody is watching them) and that it's incredibly easy to get lost even in its most familiar places. The team is also informed, forebodingly, by the caretakers (played by Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley) that there would be no one anywhere near to hear them scream in the night as everyone (including the caretakers) avoided the place like a bad flute band in a crowded mall.Is the house, indeed, born bad? Was there something wrong with the land before it was built? Is it a standard haunting or is there something completely unknown and terrifying that goes far beyond mere ghosts within those walls? We're never really told and the uncertainty to the mystery helps make this film work remarkably well!
While The Haunting does occasionally show its age with the occasional melodramatic moment and over-expressive musical cue, when the intelligent audience places themselves firmly within the zeitgeist, these elements work very well for the terror of the film. Further, the lighting and cinematography work beautifully to capture every inch of the grayscale picture, creating an enriching and deep frame that Robert Wise takes every advantage of. The set design by Elliot Scott and decoration by John Jarvis are to be praised here, but Wise's camera tricks from the first sequence to the final scene is incredible to see. The widescreen image is filled with things to look at, some frightening, some so innocuous that they make the scary things stand out all the more. This, in turn, calls the seemingly innocent sights into question. If Wise zooms in on something, you'd better take it seriously, but at the same time, like the best cerebral horror flicks, it's what we do NOT see that is the most terrifying. Further, Wise's use of stairway handrails as makeshift dolly tracks and occasional, well-chosen low angles gives a voyeuristic feel to the scariest moments as if we are not only a part of Hill House, but are seeing the action through its own eyes!
Wise also keeps this horror film scary and tasteful at the same time. While the suspense and terror are palpable here, one never sees any blood or gore. None at all. Similarly, it is very clear that Bloom's attractive character is a gay woman and is unashamed of this. It's also clear that this fact alternately excites and repulses Harris' character. However, this is played merely as a fact and is treated neither sensationally, nor as some form of social taboo to be condemned. Wise doesn't linger on this fact, he simply lets Theo be Theo... and that's a beautiful thing!
The Haunting itself is a beautiful thing, warranting Four and one half Stars out of Five! This is a true classic of the genre, ranking up there with more intelligent horror films like The Innocents, Psycho and the very similar, but still unique The Legend of Hell House! Wise made a wonderful horror movie without gratuities, without cheap and derivative moments and with a lot of trust in the audience to get it. Smart viewers should love it. Those who require spoon-fed plots and endless exposition, not to mention on-screen advice for what emotions to feel with each scene should apply elsewhere... or perhaps spend their own night in Hill House! Until then, I'll see you in the next Haunted Reel!
The knocking on the wall and the Breathing Door
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Cold Spots! Man, I'm sure that Theo and Nell could have warmed each other up... Good Grief is Theo Hot!
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