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Dissecting the Classics – The Haunting (1963)

November 2, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Haunting

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Who says horror season has to end on November 1st? I actually had something else planned for this week, but since I’ve been watching only horror movies lately I decided to go ahead and do a requested film while it’s fresh in my mind and relevant in pop culture.

The Haunting

Wide Release Date: September 18, 1963
Produced and Directed By: Robert Wise
Written By: Nelson Gidding
Cinematography By: Davis Boulton
Edited By: Ernest Walter
Music By: Humphrey Searle
Production Company: Argyle Enterprises
Distributed By: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Julie Harris as Eleanor “Nell” Lance
Claire Bloom as Theodora “Theo”
Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway
Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sanderson
Fay Compton as Mrs. Sanderson

What Do We All Know?

This might actually be a movie where the “What Do We All Know?” title might not really apply. The Haunting isn’t exactly absorbed into pop culture, but it also isn’t quite what I’d call a lost gem. If you’re my age, you might know of the movie because of the rather terrible 1999 remake that somehow managed to rope Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bruce f’n Dern into making it. If you don’t remember that but happen to have a Netflix account, you may have seen the heavily promoted and critically praised The Haunting on Hill House. So clearly the material is memorable and worth remaking, but how does the original 1963 movie hold up?

Well, I decided to find out. This was requested as a film to cover by commenter Swiggan, and since I was planning to watch it at some point and it was suddenly more culturally relevant than its likely to ever be again, it just seemed like the time to do it. So this week’s column is going to unusual for this column: this is my raw thoughts on my first viewing of a film, rather than asserting what I love about a movie I already considered a classic.

What Went Right?

The set up for the film is that Dr. Markway is investigating reports of paranormal activity in Hill House, a mansion with unsettling architecture and a grisly history of death. While Markway sets the plot in motion, most of the story is centered on Eleanor Lance, a woman he brings to help with his investigation because of her childhood experience with a poltergeist. Eleanor is already in a state of distress due to the recent passing of her mother, but being in the house and privy to the supernatural disturbances only serves to further unravel her mind. Dr. Markway and his other investigators (a psychic named Theo and the skeptical heir to the house Luke Sanderson) eventually become convinced that leaving the house would be a good idea, Eleanor becomes desperate to stay in her new “home” in spite of (or perhaps, because of) the haunting that seems to be going on.

The Haunting works with a relatively small cast that thankfully have interesting chemistry with each other. Dr. Markway may be convinced of the paranormal activity but is seeking conclusive proof, and Luke Sanderson’s belligerent refusal to believe in ghosts serves as an effective counterpoint – both men seem sane, but who does the viewer choose to side with? Decidedly less in her right mind is Eleanor – Julie Harris is really the acting MVP here, incorporating her real life depression into the character and showing us someone who is deeply affected by the house and seems to be on an inevitable collision course with madness. Playing off of her is Theo, a woman who befriends and comforts through the frightening haunts. Theodora is one of the film’s more interesting points, a character who is so clearly coded as lesbian that I’m frankly boggled they got away with it in 1963. Seeing the almost romance develop between the two women as “Nell” descends into insanity is probably the best human relationship in the film, and I’m curious to see how it plays out in the Netflix show when I get around to watching it.

While the film does have engaging characters, that’s not really what we’re here for. We’re here to be scared out of our wits, and this film takes an interesting approach to it. Screenwriter Nelson Gidding believed that Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t really a ghost story, but a story about Nell losing her mind. Jackson corrected him to assure that the mansion really was haunted, and the result is a film that plays rather ambiguously. There’s the usual noises and unexplained movement that have become cliches of ghost story exposition, but the film never gives conclusive evidence that there are ghosts. Is the house haunted, or are the inhabitants just going insane? Does it matter? That’s where the film really succeeds in my opinion. I’ve never seen a movie so effectively capture the feeling of being convinced that supernatural activity is real but being unable to prove it. The feeling of something being malevolent or simply “off” pervades the movie, and the fact that we can never be truly certain of what happened makes it all the more unsettling. We have to decide for ourselves what was actually happening in Hill House.

Aside from this ambiguity, the film’s has two extremely effective horror tools in its arsenal. First is the house itself, a truly creepy set that evokes the gothic horror of Universal monster movies but with a distinctly American feel to it. The various statues, the fragile staircase and the sheer size of the rooms all make this mansion a place where fear festers. And everything is amplified cinematographer Davis Boulton. The use of odd angles and long tracking shots helps to ramp up the sense of unease, that danger is lurking just beyond the frame. In some ways, this is the film’s farthest reaching impact – this is a Rosetta Stone for the cinematic language of ghost story movies, and one can see similar tricks used in modern horror films like The Conjuring and The Babadook.

What Went Wrong?

The Haunting’s one major, stand out flaw is actually quite pervasive; it’s a largely plotless work that is rather difficult to follow while watching and even more difficult to recall after the fact. This is a movie concerned with setting and mood and theme, and not so much with the details of its story. As long as we connect with Nell and get scared along with her, the film works rather well, but I can easily see someone being both confused and bored for large portions of the movie. For me, this is what keeps The Haunting from being a truly great movie.

And In Summary…

While I have some reservations and don’t feel The Haunting is a timeless or seminal work, it is a very good movie that I’m glad to have watched. It’s a film that really captures the sensation of feeling like you’re being haunted, the paranoia and the unraveling of your mind. It’s well acted, has a great set and fantastic camera work. I’d recommend it for any fans of old-school horror, and I’m now extremely interested in watching how Netflix handled the material.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. I’ve been watching a lot of horror and Halloween-esque movies lately, from Beetlejuice and Coroline to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and An American Werewolf in London. But I’ve also gone to the theater to watch First Man and the new Halloween.