After a surprising and busy week, the pup and I decided to set back, relax, and enjoy a classic black & white horror movie. It might have you reaching for the Pepto during some scenes if you have a sensitive tummy i.e. motion sickness, not for the gore factor. Why not the gore factor? Because this one was made when film directors still knew less was more. A lesson today’s studios need to learn in short order although I doubt they will.
The Haunting (1963)
Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
In this day and age of remakes, few studios in Hollywood have a clue as to what is truly scary.
Uncertainty has become the most terrifying word in the English language to many people I know. With the economy as it stands, many of us don’t know from one day to the next whether we’ll have a job come tomorrow. Uncertainty breeds confusion and that leads to fear; that is what horror was bred from our fears. Whether that fear is real or if it originates from our imagination doesn’t matter—it is real to us.
Uncertainty is the focus of the 1963 classic Robert Wise horror film The Haunting based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. Although, I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Jackson’s novel if it is anything like the movie (which is hard to tell sometimes) then I applaud her for the mind fuck of the 20th century.
The movie starts with a shot of Hill House a forbidding 90-year-old mansion built, as the voice over tells us, by the wealthy Hugh Crain for his young wife and daughter in remote New England. The narrator we later learn is one Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) an anthropologist, researching the existence of ghosts. He informs us that the house was born bad beginning with the death of Crain’s wife, before she ever sets eyes on his gift, in a carriage accident. A bitter, angry man Huge Crain stays in Hill House to raise a young daughter on his own. His story continues with the death of Crain’s second wife from a fall down the main staircase a few years after. Crain then leaves his young daughter in the care of a nurse and travels to England where he dies in a drowning accident.
Crain’s death isn’t the end of the story though. His daughter, Abigail, continues to live there until she is old and bed-ridden. She dies when her paid companion ignores her pleas for help in favor of lust in the arms of a young farm hand. The companion inherits the house only to end her life by hanging herself from the library ceiling at the stop of an iron spiral staircase.
It is here that we finally meet Dr. Markway, who is meeting with the present owner of Hill House, convincing her to rent him the house against her better judgment so that he may do an experiment in the search for the supernatural. He has selected a handful of people, all who have had experiences with the unknown, and the owner is sending her nephew Luke (Russ Tamblyn, father of Amber Tamblyn of Joan of Arcadia fame) to keep an eye on things.
We are then introduced to our main character, Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance (the talented Julie Harris, you might recall her as Val’s mother in Knot’s Landing), a young woman trapped in an unhappy situation with her sister after the death of their mother. For years, she was primary caregiver to their deathly ill and not nice mother. She’s looking for a way out of her own unhappiness and she believes Hill House is it. Stealing her sister’s car (which she insists is half hers) Nell arrives at the house with a belly full of doubts, greeted by the caretaker Mr. Dudley who sets her nerves on edge. Dudley’s wife isn’t much better warning her that no one comes to the house after dark (they use almost the exact same line in the 1999 version).
Fearful that she’s the only one to arrive, she starts to panic, but then meets Theodora ‘Theo’, a flashy dark-haired beauty, who makes Nell feel at ease. Together the two of them begin exploring the house, getting lost in the winding corridors as a result. Nell’s doubts begin getting the best of her and she insists to Theo that something is following them. She hears voices and Theo doesn’t although she comments off-hand that the house wants Nell. Eventually Dr. Markway makes his appearance and introduces himself along with Luke, who finds the talk of ghosts and the supernatural hilarious. During dinner theories are tossed about and we discover two things 1) Originally there were to be six participants and one by one they backed out, and 2) Theo possesses ESP and Nell had, at the age of ten, a run in with a poltergeist that she vehemently denies.
Over the course of the movie, a number of questionable scenarios offered up to the viewer make us doubt the truth of what is going on. Noises in the night, thuds, and cold spots that Theo and the others witness, but the darkest things are for Nell’s ears and eyes alone. She becomes drawn more and more to Markway and begins forming an unnatural attachment to him. Theo seems to be the only one that notices and constantly confronts Nell at every turn.
When the good professor’s wife shows up Nell’s obsessive delusion shatters and the shit hits the fan. It’s then we think back at Nell’s poltergeist experience as a child and we begin to wonder if Nell might be responsible for the occurrences since their arrival. Just as she was responsible for the poltergeist years before that was a manifestation of her frustration and anger towards her mother. The question is now—is the house truly haunted or is everything inside Eleanor’s mind?
Robert Wise does an exquisite job establishing not only the atmosphere of the house but Nell’s descent into madness. Warped and oddly angled camera shots, lighting that shifts and changes at the drop of a hat, and Nell’s internal dialogue, all play to her state of mind. Filming in black & white only emphasized the surreal feel of the story.
The Haunting is a well-balanced psychological thriller with a taste of the supernatural. It takes us on ride through a troubled mind that may or may not be responsible for manifesting a darkness that permeates an inanimate object, giving it a life of its own. After watching The Haunting, you may begin to wonder if the supernatural is an exterior force or if it resides inside all of us.
Final Rating: 4/5 Fox Pups
5 Fox Pups – Must See/Can’t Miss
4 Fox Pups – Excellent
3 Fox Pups – Good
2 Fox Pups – Passable
1 Fox Pups – Skip It