There are ghost stories and haunted house films aplenty in horror cinema, but only a few over the decades have really stood out as head and shoulders above the crowd. Fewer still set the bar at a higher level than what came before them. 1963’s The Haunting sits somewhere near the top- or, in my opinion, at the top -of that list.
The film is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Hollywood legend has it that the book became a film when producer/director Robert Wise was reading the book, and, so engrossed and unnerved was he by the narrative, an assistant walking into his office and trying to get his attention made him jump in fright. Realizing then how much of the narrative’s ability to scare could be translated to film; he immediately set out to create the film version. The movie, a generally faithful if somewhat trimmed down version of the novel, did ultimately retain that ability. In fact, in may have surpassed the book’s ability to scare in at least a few scenes.
The story is simple enough. Hill House sits alone and empty, having seen more than its share of death and tragedy over the decades. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) invites a small group to join him at Hill House to investigate the stories of the house’s paranormal activities. Joining him are Theo, Luke, and Eleanor played by Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Julie Harris respectively.
In the early stages of the film, Markway, seemingly more the debunker, discusses how simple, ordinary, and non-paranormal things can explain away much of the hysteria around the house. Some of these would be the architecture being deliberately based on odd angles in order to disorient one as to their location in the house or how all the doors sit at just the right angle to slowly close on their own as if shut by unseen hands. By the first night of their stay, Hill House begins to show them that the events that transpire within its walls will not be explained away so easily.
Much of the film’s events are skewed by being interpreted through the perceptions of Eleanor. She is the central character of the film, and she is the only character whom we hear the inner dialogue of during a number of scenes. This narrative gets more intense, and more erratic, as it becomes clear that, for reasons known to no one in the group, Hill House seems to be targeting her.
The first roughly two thirds of the film’s narrative is largely leisurely in pacing, but there are absolutely moments of horror to be found there. As the film moves towards its conclusion, the pace quickens as the characters become more desperate and determined to escape becoming parts of the legend of Hill House.
Originally released to mixed reviews and somewhat less than a mega-hit making box office take, The Haunting is now largely considered to be one of the greatest haunted house/ghost story films to come out of Hollywood. For many, certainly for me in particular, one of the greatest achievements of The Haunting is in its ability to create the type of horror that creeps inside your head and make all your nerves stand on end using almost no special visual effects whatsoever.
For the most part, the vast majority of the terror that The Haunting can induce in the viewer is created largely from the cheapest of special effects, but seemingly the most difficult ones to master in much of today’s horror cinema. It is almost all built on mood, atmosphere, extremely well thought out directing, the ability of the actors involved to convey what’s most needed in a scene, and the use of sound. Outside of a jump scare and two old school physical prop FX tricks involving a spiral staircase and a door, every scare in the film is built up through the creation of atmosphere and by the performances.
Some of that atmosphere is created by the performance of Julie Harris. As in the novel, her character is pivotal to shaping how we see the unfolding events, her occasional narration over various scenes slowly begins to flavor those moments with a greater feeling of despair and madness. This causes some of the later scenes and the climax to have moments where the film (intentionally) feels disjointed, making the viewer almost subliminally uncomfortable.
The reason for this was the somewhat interesting take that Wise and writer Nelson Gidding took from the source material. In examining the novel’s story for translation to film, they had determined that the theme of the book was one of following someone’s descent into madness from mental illness. Their take on the story was that Eleanor had gone insane and that the story was actually the delusions she created for herself based on what was happening to her in a mental hospital. They presented their theory to Jackson. She was reportedly impressed with the concepts they had created, but made it very clear that her story really was based on the supernatural. While the majority of their original concept did not survive to the final drafts of the script, remnants of it made it through to the end. This may ultimately have been for the better as the feelings of insanity conveyed by both the character of Eleanor and the mood of the film’s final acts manage to evoke feelings of unease in the viewer quite nicely.
These feelings were heightened by Wise’s amazing directorial work on the film. Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton planned out and executed a variety of shots designed to put the viewing perspective of the audience ever so slightly, and occasionally greatly, off kilter. Low angle shots, some with the camera slightly tilted, were commonplace in tense scenes. Wise worked to keep the camera moving in many scenes. He sometimes so in what seems unexpected ways to the viewer, and utilized tracking shots and pans that were somewhat different from his usual style at the time while remaining highly effective. They also relied heavily on unsettling visual compositions in some scenes. The location they were using for exterior shots, Ettington Hall in Ettington, Warwickshire in England, was shot in such a way as to make the house feel almost alive, even giving the appearance of the windows being eyes.
All of this, and a little bit more, makes The Haunting essential viewing for horror fans; especially for those who enjoy the horror subgenre of the haunted house films. It’s also an amazingly inexpensive film school for the wannabe horror film creators willing to sit down and dissect the many tricks and techniques that make the film work on so many levels.
The film has been remade once by Hollywood with 1999’s The Haunting. Avoid this version at all costs. 1999’s The Haunting is the type of remake that gives the concept of the remake a bad name by largely missing the concepts that made the original so scary and by substituting skilled direction and atmosphere with a ridiculously large overload of over the top CGI effects.
As a bit of side trivia for those of you who hate the colorization of classic black and white films- The Haunting was the last film Wise did in black and white. Even though color stock was available well before The Haunting was made, Wise believed that black and white was a far superior and more artistic format for some subject matter. At the time he was preparing to make The Haunting, he had enough clout as a producer/director to have it guaranteed in his contract that the film would be made and released in black and white. 27 years later that clause he insisted be in the contract would have unexpected, and at that time unforeseeable, benefits.
While touring the facilities that Turner was using to colorize classic films, Wise was aghast to see a scene from The Haunting in garish colors playing on a TV monitor. After having already seen one of his films colorized to his great dismay, he and his lawyer looked into the various ways he could have the colorization of The Haunting stopped. They poured over the old contracts and rediscovered the clause pertaining to the film having to be in black and white and this bit of contractually guaranteed creative control was enough to stop the process. It was in large part this action by Wise and the similar actions by the estate of Orson Welles that gave many creators the power to block the colorization of their older films.
The Haunting can still be found at some online retailers on DVD, but it was also released as an exquisitely beautiful Blu-Ray back in October 2013. It can be found at most retailers for under $15, and it makes a great double feature with the Blu of The Legend of Hell House (available at most retailers for under $20.) If you’ve never seen The Haunting, seek it out on Blu-Ray and enjoy it in all of its HD glory.