31/31 – Day 21 – The Haunting (1963)

Posted: October 21, 2011 by StayFrosty in Film, Reviews

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

You would be hard pressed to find a more effective opening paragraph than the one above, from Shirley Jackson’s novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”.  And while movies based on novels rarely seem to capture the same spirit, Robert Wise’s 1963 film adaptation, titled “The Haunting”, manages to not only keep the unsettling, dark tone of the novel, but also is an extremely well made film in its own right.  I’ve seen this movie many, many times, and it never fails to freak me out.  I remember showing this movie for the first time to two of my dearest friends a few years back.  I was a little concerned because we had to watch it in broad daylight, not the most ideal way to watch a slow-boil movie about a house – or is it a person? – gone insane.  The three of us started the movie sitting by ourselves in different spots around the room.  By the end, we were all huddled together on a small love seat, clutching hands, the sun offering no comfort.  I remember feeling excited and energized (and scared, I’ll admit it) that a horror film could have the power to reach out and pull the viewer into its world regardless of the watching situation.

The story seems simple on the surface – Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a scientist determined to prove the existence of the paranormal, invites a group of sensitives to Hill House, a place defined as “not sane”.  Together they investigate and try to determine if they can accurately measure any supernatural phenomena.  Easy, right?  Not so much.  Aside from the house being totally evil, the guests come with their own baggage – and I don’t mean luggage, people.  Amongst those staying at this mansion is Eleanor “Nell” (Julie Harris), a fragile young woman who spent the last few years of her life caring for her invalid mother, and now is stuck living with her domineering sister.  For Nell, running to Hill House is an escape from her suffocating family, and she can barely believe someone would want her at all.  Joining Nell and Dr. Markway at the house are psychic (and hinted lesbian, a pretty big deal for 1963) Theo and Luke Sanderson, the owner of Hill House (Russ Tamblyn).  These four people soon discover that Hill House is much more than they thought, and that it may have its attentions focused on keeping Nell forever.  However, not everyone believes ghosts are to blame.  Is the house after Nell, or is her sanity beginning to unravel?

It’s a credit to director Wise that he allowed this film to be ambiguous – you never completely know if the house is haunted or if Nell is just losing her mind.  Everything in the movie can be attributed to either one, which makes it so interesting on the re-watch.  As Nell, Harris expertly plays an oppressed young lady on the edge – pushing down her rage and resentment from caring for her mother, continually being pushed down by her sister, desperately wanting a place where she feel she belongs.  And suddenly she gets an invitation to Hill House, a chance for freedom in a place that offers her everything she wants.  I still don’t know if I think Eleanor was haunted or crazy, and in the end it doesn’t really matter, the story is equally strong either way.

There’s so much to say about this film it’s hard to know where to begin.  So I’ll start by saying that this is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, and there’s exactly one effect in it.  That’s right, there’s no SFX, no monsters jumping out, no stings, none of that mess.  So what is there?  Tons of atmosphere, intense lighting, beautiful and well thought out cinematography…in short, things that make a film truly great.  Anyone who wants a lesson on how to create a mood full of terror without showing anything, this is the movie to watch.

The fears and haunts of Hill House are almost exclusively experienced through sound and shadow, allowing our minds to fill in the rest.  And believe me, if you allow it, your mind will fill in some terrifying shit.  The lighting is gorgeous, with long, dark shadows and thin slivers of light.  Much like the Val Lewton films from the same period, lighting in this film is one of its strongest points (in a film with so many strong points, that’s saying something).  The shadow work in the film is so well done that the shadows themselves feel palpable, heavy and viscous.  The one effect, a creepy as hell breathing door, still remains convincing after all these years.

Yes, there’s a remake.  No, I don’t want to talk about it.  In fact, it would be better for everyone if we pretended it never happened.

This is one of my top five horror films of all time, and I don’t think that will ever change.  It’s truly brilliant.  It stays with you long after the credits roll (shit, it’s stayed with me for decades).  And after you’ve seen it, every once in a while you think about “whatever walked there, walked alone”, and then you check your door, one more time, just to make sure it isn’t breathing.

  1. As one of those three folks who huddled together on the couch, all I can say is that it remains one of my favorite movie memories of all time. I use it as part of my lecture to my creative writing classes, when I tell them that they have to let a work of art do its thing, and not rush it or fight it. If an old, slow-boiling, black and white horror film from the ’60s can work in the middle of the afternoon, that says a great deal indeed.

    You’re right, there’s so much here to praise that you’re spoiled for choice. It also says a lot that what has become one of the oldest horror cliches – watching a doorknob slowly turn back and forth – is one of the film’s strongest points, a moment of genuine terror. And that loud banging sounds can be so expressive of … hell, I don’t know what it is that’s making them, exactly, but I also sure as hell don’t want to find out! The fact that it leaves so much to the imagination is simply so rare and precious, especially now, when modern audiences want a lot of things wrapped up very nice and neatly by the end.

    Oh! Oh! I just remembered another great part: “Then who was holding my hand!” Serious. Genius. Shouldn’t work at all. Should be cheesy. Should be ineffective without a visual. WORKS LIKE A CHARM. Man, I love this flick.

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