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Apr 26, 2012

Review of The Haunting

This review appeared as part of Ghost Appreciation Month 2010 on the Beyond Fiction blog here.

Sharon K. Reamer
Review of The Haunting
MGM, 1963
United Kingdom
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding
Based on the novel 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson

 As a kid, I loved being scared witless. But there are only three films from my younger years that really remain memorable for this. One was Bambi (okay, I was three when my father took me to see it, and that music was scary). Another was Invaders from Mars (1953) that I remember seeing on television. I suspect viewing that film now would kill the fond memories of having the piss scared out of me in broad daylight. The third film, The Haunting, has stood the test of time. I find it just as creepy, if not quite as scary, as I did back then.

The Haunting was directed and produced by Robert Wise. For us lovers of the speculative, his films The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971) will spring to mind. He is perhaps better known for some of his other films (The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles). The protagonists include Eleanor 'Nell' Lance  (Julie Harris), Theodora 'Theo' (Claire Bloom), John Markway (Richard Johnson) and Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn).

John Markway opens the movie – even before the title and credits roll – with a nifty narrative introduction paraphrasing the beginning of Jackson's book accompanied by ultra spooky music (by British composer Humphrey Searle) and a view of Hill House at night. His narration describing the history of Hill House continues after the credits. This in media res beginning, including 'the first Mrs. Crain's' death – we only see her limp hand dangling from the crashed carriage – followed by the death of 'the second Mrs. Crain', with an 'accidental' plunge down the stairs and a look of utter horror on her face, and the suicidal hanging of surviving daughter Abigail Crain's companion, has us primed for nastiness. My favorite line from the movie comes from this sequence: "It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad."

John Markway is an anthropologist interested in the supernatural and receives permission to investigate Hill House. The 'team' of clairvoyants and those sensitive to the paranormal he has invited to join him dwindles to just two young women – Eleanor Lance and Theodora ('just Theodora') – along with the next heir to Hill House, Luke Sanderson. As Eleanor arrives at Hill House, the tension builds nicely due in part to the creepy custodians – The Dudleys – and her initial moments alone in the uninhabited house.

Even the early scenes where the four investigators meet and come together is handled with adequate pacing and without bogging the story down with too much background or exposition. Hill House also makes its entrance as character right away as, soon after their arrival, Theodora and Eleanor experience a cold spot, eerily waving plants, and Theodora's dramatically delivered remark that the house wants Eleanor.

We get many of Eleanor's internal monologues through the film, making her experiences of the house's activities intimate and revealing. Eleanor comes across as a frail and not particularly likeable character, prone to emotional outbursts and awkward sentiments. She hasn't gotten out much. Ever. We do sympathize with her terror, though, and just for that reason. She has no defenses against Hill House.

The pace builds as Hill House continues to spook Eleanor and Theodora with its presence. There are no sightings of anything ghostly, but the darkness of the rooms where the corners go off at odd angles, doors shut by themselves and the loud nightly banging sounds accompanied by sudden temperature drops – all suggest paranormal activity and are well executed in the film.

Eleanor begins to succumb to her terror of the house at the same time we begin to learn (through John Markway's questioning and her own behavior) that she is not a stable individual to begin with. Therefore, despite Hill House's physical paranormal manifestations, the audience has cause to doubt Eleanor's sense of reality. Is it the house or is it just Eleanor? She also refuses to leave – she insists that she wants to stay – further convincing us that Eleanor is in the blinking red light zone of the labile scale. Her school-girl crush on Markway also adds to this impression – although, to be fair – Markway does nothing to discourage her.

The movie's climax comes very close to the end, pursuant to the arrival of Markway's wife, Grace. That Markway is married comes across as a tragic shock to Eleanor (although it is clearly made known to the audience near the beginning of the film). Grace's character is portrayed in the film as a flippant non-believer in the paranormal come to convince Markway to return home to salvage what is left of his scientific reputation. She promptly ensconces herself in the dread nursery – which Markway believes is the heart of the house's evil. Second favorite line, delivered by Grace Markway on entering the nursery: "Now I know who your fiend at Hill House is – the interior decorator."

Despite Markway's protests, Grace insists on spending the night in the nursery alone. The other four lock themselves in the sitting room as Markway deems it a good idea that they all stay together.

The dramatic rise from this point on to the film's climax is a masterpiece of psychological suspense-building mixed with action along with a few nice twists along the way that I doubt even Hitchcock could have done better. My main criticism of the film – if it can even be classified as such – is that Hill House doesn't look the least bit scary from the outside, even though many camera shots at weird angles are shown with an attempt to convince us of this, and – here's the criticism part – apparently, in the novel, Jackson meant for the house to look unassuming and normal. This contradiction – was it supposed to look spooky or not – distracted me a wee bit.

At 112 minutes, The Haunting is not a long film – and a perfect one for viewing with a (hopefully, highly labile) friend or partner near midnight on Halloween. Rating: 9.5/10