The Haunting (1963) ****
I like the fact that The Haunting and Blood Feast were released in the same year. It gives 1963 a nice “changing of the guard” feel, as far as horror movies are concerned. Blood Feast, of course, was the original hardcore gore film, setting a trend that would gradually come to dominate horror cinema until, by the mid-1980’s, the more old-fashioned, less explicit school of fright films had been driven almost to extinction. The Haunting, on the other hand, was unquestionably among the grandest and most glorious achievements of the old school. As is well known, this movie (which was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House) is one of those “leave it all to the imagination” flicks, and is widely regarded to be perhaps the most frightening film ever made. And as such, it is also every professional movie critic’s favorite stick with which to beat the descendents of Blood Feast, the centerpiece of an argument in favor of the scare value of the unseen that has, over the years, become so ritualized as to become almost a mantra. But despite the near unanimity of opinion on the subject, I have yet to encounter a review of the film whose author seems to understand the real reason why The Haunting works as well as it does.
The movie begins with a device that ought to make it look ridiculous, but strangely doesn’t. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson, who like so many other respectable actors of his day, fell on hard times in the late 70’s and ended up working for Italians— look for him in Zombie and Beyond the Door) narrates the history of Hill House in voice-over while a montage of scenes he describes unfolds on the screen. The house was built 90 years ago by an eccentric recluse who wanted to get himself and his new bride as far away from the rest of humanity as he could. The man never really got a chance to enjoy his dream home, though, because his carriage overturned on the long driveway leading to its main gate, and his wife was killed in the crash. His second wife died young, too, splitting her skull in a fall down one of the staircases— no one really knows how or why. And over the rest of its nine-decade history, Hill House has been no kinder to its subsequent occupants, with the understandable result that its current owner lives far away from it. Dr. Markway’s interest in the place is a professional one. He’s a parapsychologist, and he would very much like to have a look around Hill House, which seems to offer a most promising test case for his ideas regarding the paranormal. To that end, Markway has arranged to lease Hill House for a short while, and has compiled a list of people whose lives have been touched by the inexplicable from which to recruit his team of assistants.
Of the six finalists on Markway’s list, only two answer his summons to Hill House. One of these is a frightfully neurotic young woman named Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris, from How Awful About Allan and The Dark Half). Eleanor came to Markway’s attention because once, when she was a little girl, stones inexplicably rained down on her house for three days, and there is some indication that she may possess latent psychokinetic powers. The other is a psychic named Theodora (Claire Bloom, of The Illustrated Man and Clash of the Titans), or as she prefers to call herself, Theo. Theo was once tested by researchers at a prominent university, and demonstrated formidable powers of extrasensory perception. Markway figures that people like Eleanor and Theo will be especially sensitive to whatever it is that goes on in Hill House, and hopes that their presence may even encourage the house to manifest its mysterious qualities more freely. In addition to Eleanor and Theo, Markway is joined by Luke Sanderson (a pre-cocaine Russ Tamblyn, whose days as a leading man for Al Adamson [with whom he made Satan’s Sadists and Dracula vs. Frankenstein] were looming up on him faster than he could have realized), heir to Hill House, whose main interest seems to be the potentially detrimental effect of the doctor’s research on the mansion’s resale value.
Curious things begin happening almost immediately. Doors close for no apparent reason whenever anyone’s back is turned, and Dr. Markway’s theory that they are all hung on their hinges with their weight slightly off-center somehow seems inadequate as an explanation. Eleanor and Theo get lost walking around the house, and even after they stumble upon Markway (who has made a point of studying the immense mansion’s floor plan), they have some difficulty regaining their bearings— it’s almost as if Hill House were subtly altering its layout in order to confuse them. The figures in a huge neoclassical sculpture in the conservatory seem to change their poses just slightly while no one is looking. There are even patches of cold air scattered throughout the house in places where no draft could possibly reach. But it isn’t until nightfall that the really otherworldly stuff starts to happen. On their first night in Hill House, Eleanor and Theo are kept awake by something that roams the hall outside their bedrooms, pounding on the walls and floors with the force of a rhinoceros wielding a sledgehammer. Yet neither Markway nor Luke— who spent their night chasing what they thought was a dog around the house and its grounds— heard any such noises.
The preternatural activity continues over the next two days. The party awakens after their first night in Hill House to discover that someone or something has scrawled “Help Eleanor come home” on one of the walls. (Hmmm... do you think we should read that as “Help, Eleanor— come home!” or as an exhortation [or a grammatically challenged offer] from the house to have someone facilitate Eleanor’s homecoming? And either way, just where does the house think Eleanor’s home might be?) Then that night, Eleanor again hears strange sounds— voices this time— emanating from a point on her bedroom wall where the pattern molded into the plaster forms the suggestion of a human face. Eleanor takes hold of Theo’s hand for reassurance, but when the manifestation ends, she notices that Theo has been asleep the entire time, all the way across the room from her! Finally, on the third day, Markway’s wife (Lois Maxwell, best known as Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond series)— who takes a very dim view of her husband’s field of scientific expertise— comes to collect him, setting herself up in what seems to be the most intensely haunted room in the whole house. Anyone dumb enough to be surprised by her subsequent disappearance, or by Eleanor’s simultaneous final freak out, ought to have themselves sterilized before they have a chance to pollute the gene pool for the next generation. The precise and deadly nature of that final freak out, however, is a bit more difficult to see coming, though it certainly dovetails nicely with some of the grimmer details of the house’s history.
Now before I go on to point out what I think makes The Haunting tick, I’d like to mention that I, personally, don’t find this movie even a little bit scary. It’s well acted, the screenplay is strong, and Robert Wise’s direction is brilliant, surpassing even his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still, but to me, anyway, The Haunting falls far short of its reputation. On the other hand, I’m about as close to scare-proof as a person with normal psychochemistry can be, and I can think of a number of moments in the film that could perhaps have an effect on someone more readily susceptible than myself. It’s these moments I’m thinking of when I say that the pro movie critics have, to a one, entirely missed the point in their analysis of this flick’s inner workings. It may sound ridiculous, but The Haunting is, in its way, every bit as explicit as a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. The reason you’ve never noticed is that this film lays siege to your senses through your ears first and foremost, while the visual component of the attack is largely subliminal. Whatever it is that “lives” in Hill House manifests itself almost entirely through sound— the pounding on the walls, the voices in the night, the subtle sounds of movement coming from somewhere just out of sight— and even on a TV set, this movie is amazingly, assaultively loud. The first appearance of the pounding thing in the hallway is the auditory equivalent of Blood Feast’s tongue-ripping scene. The Haunting also uses dialogue to get at the audience, appropriating long stretches of Jackson’s creepily-worded prose for those scenes in which Markway tells of the mansion’s history, and for the frequent interior monologues in which Eleanor reveals the workings of her diseased mind. Meanwhile, on the visual front, Wise makes deft use of unconventional angles and rapid, elaborate camera movements to create an atmosphere of nightmarish disorientation. Even the set design plays into the effect. Early on, Markway tells his assistants that there “isn’t a square corner” in all of Hill House. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but there certainly are very few, and the “wrong geometry” to which Markway calls our attention intensifies the otherworldly feel generated by Wise’s camera work. And there’s yet another layer to the movie’s subliminal visual trickery— the needless architectural complexity of Hill House, suggestive of the famous Winchester Mansion, which seems to translate the disordered thought-process of the dangerously insane into a riot of useless rooms and overwrought interior decoration. It isn’t that the horror has been left to your imagination, as is so frequently asserted. What the makers of The Haunting have done is to fool the critics into applauding them for creating a monsterless horror film, when what’s really going on is that Hill House itself is the monster! Similarly, the same critics have mistaken a lack of gore and special effects for a lack of aggressive shock tactics— they’ve simply failed to notice those tactics because the movie targets the ears rather than the eyes. And it seems to me that the biggest reason that most other films that attempt to invoke “the terror of the unseen” fail is that their creators look to The Haunting as a model without realizing that this movie achieves its success by substituting auditory shocks for visual ones, while simultaneously using small, unobtrusive details of imagery to create an atmosphere in which those shocks can do the most damage.