Movie Review- The Haunting (o-1963)

Hi Folks,

 

So in honor of Sunday here in Shocktober we’ll be turning back the clock a bit for one of my very favorite ghost stories:

 

 

 

 

The Haunting (o-1963)

 

 

 

Fast Facts

 

Made in 1963, directed by Robert Wise and based off of the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, who also assisted with the screenplay.

 

 

The plot centers around Dr. Markway and three poor souls he has enlisted to assist him in a study to prove the existence of the supernatural. Hill House, like all haunted houses in Hollywood; is THE haunted house, said to be violently disturbed and dangerous to anyone who goes there. To be honest I’m really not doing the creepy justice here’s the opening description from Ms. Jackson’s incredible novel:

 

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.”

 

Yeah that looks about right

So yeah anyway, Dr. Markway grabs two psychics and a skeptic (which I think we can all agree is safe) and takes them to a house that has murdered everyone who ever lived there and a few that didn’t even make it that far.

 

Man that thing's got a reach

 

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s the plot of several hundred other haunted house movies that ripped this one off.

 

Professor Wall Cat says plagiarism is unacceptable...but plot stealing is totally cool as long as he's the one doing it

 

Cast

 

Good call letting her go first

Julie Harris- Plays Eleanor “Nell” Lance our protagonist and not exactly Miss Sanity USA either.  Due to some rocks falling on her street when she was young and angry; Dr. Markway chooses Eleanor for the experiment due to her psychokinetic powers and a touch of just regular old psychic ability. Eleanor turns out to have an unusually profound connection with Hill House. Ms. Harris does an incredible job with what could have been a truly irritating character. The growing fear and shrinking sanity in Eleanor’s character have to be balanced very particularly to be effective and still retain audience sympathy. Ms. Harris achieves this wonderfully.

 

Hollywood glamour...in a horror movie

Claire Bloom- Plays Theo a clairvoyant and very (bi) sensual member of the hunting party. Takes it upon herself a lot of the time to try to knock Nell down off of the cross for a few minutes…just trust me; you’re gonna like Theo.

 

Academia...the douchebag factory

Richard Johnson- Plays Dr. Markway our intrepid scientist and therefore the reason everyone is having such a bad time. He does a rather nice job though, this is a trope that can quickly become tiresome and even though this is one of the first films to do it; watching it from a modern perspective Mr. Johnson is still the best one I’ve seen.

 

You are SO damn smarmy

Russ Tamblyn- Plays Luke Sanderson, the skeptical future owner of Hill House. His primary concern as he tags along for the expedition is that there are no ghosts found in the place so he can turn it into something profitable. Does a nice job over all but he also played Riff in West Side Story and all I heard was “Gee Officer Krupke” every time he opened his mouth.

 

Lois Maxwell- Plays Grace Markway Dr. Markway’s skeptic wife and walking plot device.

 

 

Observations

 

The Haunting is an amazing ghost story, and while we’re never shown what haunts Hill House the entity or entities responsible for all the mischief make it pretty darn clear from the get go that they aren’t friendly.

 

What? My friends do that to me all the time...

 

Like all haunted house movies The Haunting is about giving you the proper build up. The backstory is impressive for Hill House, including the death of the original owner’s wife in a carriage accident before she ever set foot in the place and driving a live in nurse to hang herself from the spiral staircase in the library. The people in the closest town are too frightened of it to even come close to the place apart from the Dudleys, the caretakers, but even they won’t come in the night…in the dark…

 

 

It's like Weird New Jerseying with a lot more death

The house itself is wonderfully atmospheric, it’s gigantic, labyrinthine and the characters note several times that though the house is remarkably well built there are phantom drafts and off looking angles all over the place. The camera reflects this by showing doors slamming shut of their own accord and the entire film is shot like it’s just slightly off kilter.

 

Also it has a nursery...with a sign...and that's just weird.

 

There are three incredible sequences in this film. Ones that still hold up very well some fifty years later. I’ve received some gentle criticism for not including more films from this time period in the horror-thon and all I can say is that while I have lots of favorites from this time period; this one still scares me in a way that many of the others just can’t anymore and it’s because of the following scenes.

 

Nell and Theo in the bedroom.

 

Now yes there’s some massive lesbian subtext going on here and Theo is an admitted member of the sisterhood but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

 

Not at all...

No I’m talking about the banging. The incessant, aggressive banging on the walls and the door while they’re trying to sleep. It’s loud and jarring for the first few seconds. But as the ladies get more frightened and t he banging gets louder and we realize that it isn’t going to stop any time soon, you’re heart begins to pound along with Nell and Theo’s sobs and shouts for help. It’s not hard to understand why Nell is starting to have a wee bit of a breakdown after this.

 

The Spiral Staircase

 

This is probably the most nerve-wracking moment in the movie. Nell; having been driven batshit by the house constantly toying with her already damaged psyche, decides that she’s going to follow the voices in her head right up the dangerously unstable metal staircase in the library. You know the one the live in nurse hanged herself from.

Uh...where you going with that?

As she ascends the staircase begins to creak and groan and move underneath her, forcing Dr. Markway who’s sort of frantic at the moment what with his wife being gone; to try to pull her back from the ledge so to speak. Unfortunately adding a fully grown man’s weight to the stairs sort of just compounds the problem and for a spine tingling minute and a half we watch the two of them play a game of tag on the violently swaying stairs. When they both finally make it to the safety of the landing…well we get our very first real shock of the movie.

 

Oh I see where you're going with that...that's unfortunate

The Warping Room

 

Just before the little adventure in the library, our four intrepid explorers are sleeping in the lounge of Hell House when whatever’s in there comes looking for Nell and can’t find her. The result is a lot of terrible footsteps, loud banging/scratching at the door of the lounge and finally pushing the door inward like elastic and releasing it.

 

 

Uh...solids aren't supposed to do that...

Seeing as CGI hadn’t been invented yet; guess what; every scare in this thing is real. And while this means that there are a lot fewer visual scares I think it’s safe to say that watching the walls bend in on themselves and stretch like rubber, is a lot cooler knowing it all had to be done practically.

 

There’s a big plus to the lack of visuals as well; we get a LOT of auditory frights, banging on the walls, banging on the doors so loud and intense you forget you aren’t actually in the room with Nell and Theo cowering in the dark. Screams and shrieks abound in this flick so I’d turn the volume way up for this one.

 

So you can hear the crazy

It is also worth noting that The Haunting while it is a ghost story and there are supernatural elements at play; is also an extremely passable psychological thriller. Nell is deeply unstable from living with her sick mother and then her overbearing, controlling sister her entire life. By the end of the film Nell makes some extreme choices to STAY at Hill House rather than go back to her rat hole life and on some level the audience almost agrees that the ghosts might be better. This is Julie Harris’s shining moment folks and I don’t want to ruin it so if you’ve never seen this movie and want to watch a very good interpretation of what going absolutely cuckoo for cocoa puffs looks like: go take a long gawk at Julie Harris in the second half of this movie.

 

It looks like this

Final Thoughts

 

 

The Haunting is a remarkably well done film that earns it’s keep by paying attention to detail and messing with the audience’s as well as the characters’ heads. There are few ghost stories done with the same intensity and psychological depth as this one. The characters are likable and the best examples of the tropes that they helped to create. The art direction is amazing and the special effects are some of the scariest I’ve ever seen done without computer assistance.

 

Also freaky face here

It is absolutely worth your time; just be careful you don’t pick up the 1999 remake, which while entertaining is a vastly inferior film.

 

 

 

All in all a 8.5 out of 10

 

 

 

Your sanity impaired Screamstress,

 

 

 

~Fright Dyke

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