The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963)Synopsis: You may not believe in ghosts, but you cannot deny terror!

“It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad.” The place is the 90-year old mansion called Hill House. no one lives there. Or so it seems. But please do come in. Because even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there’s no denying the terror of The Haunting.

Robert Wise returned to psychological horror for this much admired, first screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” Four people come to the house to study its supernatural phenomena. Or has the house drawn at least one of them to it? The answer will unnerve you in this “elegantly sinister scare movie. It’s good fun” (Pauline Kael, “5001 Nights at the Movies”).


The Haunting (1963) 7.5

eyelights: Hill House. the gorgeous cinematography. the chills.
eyesores: the ham-fisted direction. the unrealistic sound effects. the ridiculous spiral staircase. the pointless ending.

“Haven’t you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just… catch something out of the corner of your eye?”

1963’s ‘The Haunting’ is a supernatural horror film by legendary film director Robert Wise. Based on ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, by Shirley Jackson, it is considered by some as one of the greatest of the genre (Martin Scorcese himself considers it his all-time favourite horror film). Although it was not a critical or commercial success in its day (it barely broke even), it has achieved cult status since.

It tells the story of Dr. John Markway, a scientist interested in the paranormal who assembles a few sensitives to do a study of Hill House, a mansion with a terrible reputation: since being built, ninety years prior, it has been plagued with all sorts of accidents, suicides and murders. Markway believes that the house was “born evil” and proceeds to get the approval of its owner to conduct his tests.

She agrees, so long as her heir can participate, and Markham sets off to select and round up participants to go live in the house for the duration of the experiment. The first, Eleanor, is a brittle, neurotic woman who is trying to escape her current life. She jumps at the chance to be involved. The next is Theodora, a cynical bohemian. The other three we never get to know because they drop out at the last minute.

That leaves only the four of them to unravel the mystery of Hill House.

Although I had never been interested in ‘The Haunting’, in particular because of the pall left over it by the dismal 1999 remake, in recent years my aversion to it slowly diminished. When I realized that it was by Robert Wise (a top-notch director by any standard), I finally started to think that it might be worth checking out. And by the time I got to it, my expectation had grown: I envisioned a terrific spookshow.

Naturally, anytime one goes into something with specific expectations, one risks being disappointed – and such was the case for me with respect to this picture: I expected masterful direction, but instead I got sloppiness; I expected a brilliant technical presentation, but instead I got lacklustre effects; I expected a gripping story, but instead I got a whole lot of hooey. It wasn’t anything near the timeless classic I hoped for.

Now, in all fairness, ‘The Haunting’ is a relatively well-made horror film. It’s really not bad. But the genre has a very low bar. Still, I was pleased with the fact that Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding chose to be more implicit than explicit in their scare tactics, felt that it was a great decision to film it in moody black and white, and adored the setting, a huge, strange mansion built at odd angles on purpose.

And it does have its fair share of scares, including: night time bashing noises on the bedroom walls (but which can only be heard by the people inside), strange messages scrawled in the hallway, a shaking spiral staircase, a cold spot at the heart of the mansion, eerie laughter and voices coming from nowhere and everywhere, a hand clasp in the middle of the night, a harp playing by itself, and a door bending inward.


But I’ve already said  too much. Only those who have already seen this motion picture should venture past this point, lest ye be damned!

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

The Good
The opening: Dr.Markway’s narration set the stage very well. We were then taken into the Hill House’sbackstory, showing us what has transpired between its walls. Thiswas shot in an old school horror style, which made me think that it would be fun to make a modern horror picture and use old style production and acting styles for its flashbacks, adapting the style to represent/emulate those particular eras.

Nell’s madness: I like that Gidding chose to focus on Nell’s mental breakdown and I like his perception that all of this was taking place in her mind. The original author told him otherwise, so he kept the supernatural angle, but it was nice to have her breakdown as part of the story because it left us uncertain about what was real and what was merely perceived – especially when she was alone.

Lesbianism: This is not particularly explicit given the era, but I like that they included a Lesbian character in the picture – and she wasn’t a villain, a butch, or a delicate flower. Nope, she was an intelligent, if world weary, independent woman. The one thing that stung, however, was having Nell tell her that she is one of God’s mistakes. Harsh. I wonder if the filmmakers were trying to say something and, if so, what.

Lois Maxwell: You can never have too much Lois Maxwell. Unfortunately, she was often relegated to a minute of screen time here and there in the early James Bond films, or found herself in such stinkfests as ‘O.K. Connery‘. Here she has a secondary part as Dr. Markway’s skeptic wife, who thinks he’s wasting his time. She feels he’s been away too long, so she joins them hallway through, taking the creepy nursery despite his protests.

The So-so
Protagonist switch: Interestingly, the picture starts with Dr. Marway, which evidently makes us think that he’s the protagonist. However, after a few minutes, it then switches to Nell, whose internal monologues take the place of his narration. At first, I thought we were just being introduced to each character in succession, something that is not uncommon in ensemble pieces, but we never went to the others.

Nod to ‘Psycho’: When the story switches to Nell, we find that she’s meek and struggling with her sister to have any rights, even though she’d been taking care of their mother for well over a decade. So she sneaks away with the car. What’s interesting is that her trip to Hill House is reminiscent of Marion Crane’s drive in ‘Psycho‘; even the music recalls it. Whether that was intentional or inadvertent is unclear.

Nell’s narration: Let’s face it: hearing your characters think can be an annoying device, and a lazy way to develop them. It works great in a book, is passable in theatre, but doesn’t work so well in cinema because cinema is that much closer to reality. So it’s an unusual device in this context, especially in a horror film. What could the filmmakers have hoped to add? We’re privy to Nell’s neuroses, but does it add to the chills? Not sure…

The spiral staircase: This one is a mixed bag. At one point the characters are exploring the mansion and come upon a tall metal staircase that spirals to a landing. The moment that someone gets on it, it begins to wobble awkwardly as though it were made of rubber or is extremely poorly designed. The character’s near-fall backward was equally awkward. Embarrassingly so. And yet, this still had me on edge. Why?

The Not-so-good
The humour: Sometimes humour works well in horror films because it helps to dissipate some of the tension, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, this depends on the genre, and psychological horror doesn’t really sustain comedy very well: after all, it depends on us being in a certain frame of mind, one that we gradually descend into as the picture moves along. The humour here is not only corny, but ill-placed.

The deal: For the first half an hour, we have no idea on what criteria the participants were chosen. Further to that, we don’t know what they were promised to participate, what their motivation could possibly be. So the whole time that Nell’s driving and setting up in the house, along with Theo, we’re left wondering why. And then we find out that she thinks she’ll be able to stay at Hill House. Really? Why? And what about the others?

Dr. Markway’s lack of organization: For someone who is planning to conduct an experiment, Markway is hardly methodical or organized: of the six that were hand-picked, only three people showed up, but he didn’t even bother to replace them – even though this will affect his results. Given that we saw him make a larger list on a blackboard, we know that he should have back-ups in case of cancellations. But he didn’t.

The technical presentation: Given that Wise is known for jaw-dropping production like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still‘, ‘West Side Story’, ‘The Sound of Music‘, ‘Star!‘ ‘The Andromeda Strain‘ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, I was expecting something really polished. ‘The Haunting’ looks like they tried but failed: the sound effects come out of a can, the camera work is sometimes wonky, if not jarring, and some of the staging was so poor that it felt like the work of a competent amateur. I was not impressed.

The ending: For reasons that escape me, Markway insists that Nell leave the mansion. Sure, he’s concerned for her safety, but she’s begging to stay and he forces her to leave. So she takes off with her car, intent on “showing them” (we have no idea how), but supernatural forces try to take the wheel (why, we don’t know) and she struggles with it. When Dr. Markway’s spouse appears out of nowhere (why, we don’t know), Nell tries to steer clear and hits a tree. Why she didn’t just brake, stop the car, …etc., is beyond me. Naturally she dies. And with her the movie, because then the others arrive, confirm her death, and it’s over. Why? Don’t they still have work to do? Isn’t the mansion still haunted? The filmmakers don’t care, they wanted to wrap it up. And we are left dangling, with no satisfying closure.

The end.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

‘The Haunting’ certainly didn’t leave me feeling indifferent about it: in some areas it intrigued me, in others it impressed me, while others left me wishing for something different, something more. And, truth be told, it’s the least subtle film that I’ve seen thus far by Robert Wise, showcasing abrupt camerawork and techniques. It lacks slickness. But most of all, it’s unsatisfying: it feels like a middle-of-the-road extravaganza.

And it could, should, have been much much more.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 7.5

Chills: 7.5
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 1.0

Date of viewing: September 21, 2014

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