Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Haunting (1963)

Title: The Haunting (1963)

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Fay Compton


The modern haunted house film often times relies heavily on using special effects to tell their tales and spook their audiences. Examples of this are James Wan’s Insidious (2010) and The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), and that’s all fine and dandy because I love special effects in haunted films as much as the next guy. It’s one of the reasons why the Poltergeist franchise is one of my favorite horror franchises ever. There are those rare exceptions when a modern haunted house film will use old school storytelling techniques, for example Alejandro Amenabar’s excellent The Others (2001). But most of the time, modern filmmakers cant help and try to wow their audiences with visual effects in films of this nature. Yet once upon a time, horror films relied more on true slow burn chills and thrills. The kind of chills that slowly creep into your imagination, crawl under your skin and make your hairs stand on end! Robert Wise’s The Haunting is one such film.

 In The Haunting, we meet Dr. John Markway, a Professor of anthropology whose sole  interest is studying the supernatural and proving that it exists. He plans to stay a couple of days in what is reportedly one of the most haunted houses to ever exist: Hill House, a house that is supposed to have been “born evil”. In order to conduct his experiments he calls three individuals: Theo a woman with strong psychic abilities, Luke Sanderson a skeptic and future owner of Hill House, and Eleanor Lance a woman who’s had a couple of supernatural occurrences happen in her life. Dr. Markway’s wishes that together, they will all witness some form of supernatural phenomena. Will they see anything truly out of this world?

 So this is a great premise for a movie. I mean, four characters staying in a house that’s supposed to haunted, simply out of curiosity of the supernatural. In a way, they are defying their beliefs, trying to cross boundaries, trying to see if the afterlife is real or a lot of baloney. And I enjoyed that about the movie, characters are constantly having philosophical conversations about the supernatural and the afterlife resulting in quotes like: “Look, I know the supernatural isn’t something that’s supposed to happen. But it does.” And “It’s the same with the world of the supernatural, until we know how it works, we’ll continue to carry around this unnecessary burden of fear”. So ideas and concepts about the supernatural are constantly being explored.

The Film is based on Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House' 

 The film is inhabited by a great bunch of characters, the skeptic, the psychic and the psychologically troubled and insecure. The main character in the film is Eleanor, the most insecure lady on the planet. We follow “Ellen” through out the whole film, we even hear he thoughts all the time. She is a lady that is so bored and disgusted with her own life. So much so, that she’s willing to do anything that is different, anything that will bring a spark of excitement to her redundant existence. She also needs someone to love, someone who will cherish her. Can Dr. Markway be the one to fulfill these needs? Ellen is the unreliable protagonist, like the main female character in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Ellen is a lady who is a few cards short of a full deck, in other words pretty close to loosing it. The other female in the picture, ‘Theo’ is a bold character for a film from the early 60’s, her attraction towards women is hinted at on more than one occasion. Interestingly, Theo has all the security that Ellen needs. Luke is the college student, the womanizer, the jokester and also the unbeliever who will be taught to believe in the supernatural.

 The best thing about this film is the awesome atmosphere that permeates the whole film, that feeling of dread and evil hovering about the house. Robert Wise concocted a series of very effective images to pull this off. ;and speaking of Wise’s camera work, the kinetic and inventive camera work in The Haunting is one of the things that makes it stand out. Robert Wise was a great director back in the day. He was responsible for such classics as West Side Story (1961), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Audrey Rose (1977) amongst many more. This is one of the greats making a horror film; Robert Wise moved his camera like a mad man in a time when such camera work wasn’t really the norm. Films back then had a very static nature to them. But not Wise’s The Haunting! On this film the camera is constantly running behind characters, focusing on strange reflections in mirrors, zooming in and out, there are all sorts of camera tricks on this picture. There is no doubt that The Haunting was way ahead of it’s time; miles ahead of anything that was coming out during the early 60’s.

 This film and Robert Wise’s camera movement has influenced many directors. For example: when the time came for Sam Raimi to direct Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987) a film that is essentially a haunted house flick, Raimi borrowed heavily from Wise’s The Haunting. You know that scene in Evil Dead II in which Bobby Joe feels that someone is holding on tightly to her hand and Jake says to her “baby I aint holding your hand” and then Bobby Joe realizes that she is holding a disembodied hand? Well, Raimi swiped that scene straight from The Haunting, but of course Raimi being Raimi, he gave it his own morbid twist. Another sequence in Evil Dead II in which we hear ghosts banging on the walls of the cabin, we see close up of the characters scared eyes as they look around the house and the camera zooms in and out with each bang…Raimi took it straight from this one as well! Hell, The Haunting even influenced the likes of Dario Argento! You know that scene in Argento’s Suspiria (1977) in which the two girls are holding each other in the middle of the night as they hear spooky footsteps and noises outside of their bedroom? Argento took it straight out of Wise’s The Haunting! So we’re talking about a highly influential film right here. Wise’s camera work made this film so watchable! The angles of Hill House, the stormy skies in the background, everything on this film was carefully planned and executed. The result is a beautiful looking and extremely kinetic black and white film.

 The Haunting surprised me in more ways then one. I had seen Jan De Bont’s remake before seeing this one. And honestly, I don’t hate the remake at all; to me it’s a well made haunted house flick with some excellent production values. That remake is a film that serves as a showcase for awesome visual effects sequences, but De Bont’s remake goes in direct contrast to what Wise achieved with his film: to tell a story that will knock the pants off of you, but without showing you anything! That’s right ladies and gents, on this one you wont see some cheesy visual effect of ghosts dangling in front of the camara. Nope, on this one Wise suggests everything. You are constantly walking the fine line between believing and not believing. It is a film that plays with our minds and imaginations to full extent, and it’s one of the things that makes it special. It’s no surprise Martin Scorcese calls The Haunting his favorite horror film. This is a film that doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap thrills, nope, every one of the frightful moments in The Haunting is carefully executed and thought out. An awesome haunted house film, in fact, one of the best.

Rating: 5 out of 5 

French poster translates to "The Devil's Mansion"


Wings1295 said...

Great review! I have loved this movie for years and just this year finally read the novel. I think it is a bit better than the film, as we are able to get a bit deeper into Eleanor's fragile mind. But the film is great, unsettling, creepy, eerie - everything you want in a haunted house movie!

Franco Macabro said...

@Caffeinated Joe: Glad you enjoyed the review Joe! I'd always put off seeing this one, I guess because it's a bit older, but I was surprised to see that it was a film that was ahead of its time, what amazed me was how much Wise moved the camera around, I could definetly see where Raimi got some of his energy from.

And now that you mentioned it I loved how we hear Eleanor's thoughts all the time, right off the bat we are introduced to the fact that she is a little off, that she is in a fragile state of mind. I thought it was genius to cast Lilly Tailor as Eleanor in the remake, she too captured that fragile insecure state of mind rather perfectly.

Thanks for commenting Joe!

Manuel Marrero said...

This one is a classic for halloween. The remake is terrible beyond belief.

Franco Macabro said...

Yup, it's a spooky flick alright.
The re-make is decent attempt in my book, it even goes deeper into the background of Hill House then the original, which pretty much leaves us with the idea that the house was just born evil. That's a more ominous idea, I'll give you that.

But I gotta hand it to the remake, it has it's moments.

otis rampaging heterosexuality said...

Julie Harris wasn`t a bad looking bird back in those days even though the bird was 37 at the time of filming. Claire Bloom was quite tasty as well.


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