One the questions I get asked quite frequently by email, Skype, telephone and notes rubberbanded around thrown stones is: “What have you got against horror movies? You’re always knocking horror movies and saying they’re stupid and make no sense.”
That’s actually not true. I’ve said that a whole lot of horror movies make no sense. Even more not only make no sense, they’re stupid. Most horror movies depend on The Idiot Plot: a plot that depends completely and solely on everybody in the movie acting like an idiot to keep the story going. But there are a whole bunch of horror movies I watch and rewatch with great enjoyment and fun. And yes, when I turn off the lights and watch them in the dark they give me the heebie-jeebies. Because they’re superbly made movies that don’t have idiot characters and the flimsiest of motivations for them to be doing the repulsively dumb things they’re doing.
THE HAUNTING is one of those movies that give me the heebie-jeebies every time I see it. It’s so spooky that even if I watch it during the daytime it creeps me out. I consider it the best haunted house movie ever made. Now before you start screaming “what about ‘The Shining’?” at me let me say that I enjoy the Stanley Kubrick version of “The Shining” a whole lot. I even grok the Mick Garris directed mini-series. However, I think that the definitive film version of “The Shining” has yet to be made.
I also love “House on Haunted Hill” “The Others” ”Poltergeist” “Burnt Offerings” “The Legend of Hell House” which in a lot of ways is a unacknowledged remake of THE HAUNTING and “Alien” And yes, I do consider “Alien” to be a haunted house movie.
But standing at the top of the pyramid is THE HAUNTING.
Shy, emotionally repressed Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is unhappily living at home with a bullying, insensitive family. She gets an invitation from Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) to come stay in an allegedly haunted New England mansion called Hill House. Markway is assembling a team of investigators to conclusively prove the existence of the supernatural and the afterlife. Markway wants Eleanor due to poltergeist activity that has plagued her in the past and she appears to have a great deal of psychic sensitivity. Theo (Claire Bloom) is clairvoyant, a talent fueled with a great deal of caustic sarcasm. Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) is in line to inherit Hill House. He’s not originally part of Dr. Markway’s team but Dr. Markway welcomes him to join as he feels Luke’s strong streak of self-preservation and skepticism will keep the team from making rash decisions.
Hill House itself is as much a character in the movie as the humans who inhabit it. It’s characterized by Dr. Markway as not being haunted so much as ‘diseased’ and ‘crazy’. It has a frightening history of madness and has been the scene of a startling number of bizarre deaths.
Our intrepid band of ghostbusters move into Hill House and gradually over the course of several days and nights come to realize that depending on your point of view they have picked either the right or the wrong house to investigate.
THE HAUNTING is a movie that should be shown to every director before he or she decides to make a horror movie. There isn’t a single solitary drop of blood anywhere and we never see nary a ghost. But through the masterful use of sound and lightning and the terrific performances, Robert Wise scares us far worse. And when we do see something it’s simple, yet effective.
Julie Harris walks off with the acting honors in this one and that’s saying a lot as the entire cast is terrific. But her Eleanor is the spoon that stirs the soup. At various points of the movie it’s suggested that Eleanor herself is causing the various events happening in the house. Or that Hill House itself has developed a twisted love for her and is seducing her. Or that Eleanor is insane and imagining everything. And we can buy each and every one of those explanations as Eleanor is so twitchy and emotionally crippled its apparent she has no defense at all against what’s happening whether it’s her own mind attacking her or Hill House.
Claire Bloom is a delight as Theo who uses her psychic talents to effectively pinpoint Eleanor’s hidden fears and weaknesses. I’ve read that when this movie had its original theatrical run a lot was made of the so-called lesbian subtext in the relationship between Theo and Eleanor but I honestly don’t see it. Eleanor seems much more interested in the handsome Dr. Markway whose kind interest in her is misunderstood by Eleanor. At least until Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell) shows up, determined to put a stop to her husband’s ghostbusting.
Russ Tamblyn didn’t even want to work in this movie and did so more as a favor to Robert Wise who insisted Russ take the role of Luke. Tamblyn and Wise had worked together on “West Side Story” and I’m glad that Wise pushed him into it. I really like the relationship between Luke and Dr. Markway. The young, hip skeptic and the older, philosophical believer make a good team. The two characters develop a real friendship and mutual respect. So much so that I could see Luke and Dr. Markway continuing to work together after the events of this movie.
And then there’s Hill House itself, most certainly the most atmospheric haunted house ever seen in a movie. There are statues with wide, blind staring eyes that Theo insists move when they’re not being directly looked at. There’s a metal spiral staircase that figures into two of the most nerve wracking scenes of the movie. And then there’s the nursery. We never find out what happens to Mrs. Markway during the night she spends there and judging by her appearance afterwards maybe its better we don’t know. Something roams the hallways at night whispering in the voices of tortured children with footsteps of demonic thunder. Doors open and close by themselves. And that’s just the soft sell. Once Hill House gets wound up and starts the hard sell…
THE HAUNTING is a movie that you should put on your Must See List if you haven’t seen it already. And please do yourself a favor and avoid the 1999 remake as if it were the Hong Kong Flu. Accept no substitutes and see the original. Enjoy.