Saturday, August 13, 2011

Classics Revisited: The Haunting

(1963) Directed by Robert Wise; Written by Nelson Gidding; Based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn; Available on DVD.

Rating: *****

“…it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  …and whatever walked there, walked alone.” * – from The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

What’s It About?

The Haunting is one of the finest haunted house stories ever committed to celluloid, despite the complete absence of visible ghosts.  Screenwriter Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel relies on the power of suggestion to provide the scares.  Jackson reportedly approved of Gidding’s faithful, but not slavish adaptation of her book.  In the middle of writing his screenplay, Gidding suddenly realized that he was painting a psychological portrait of a woman’s nervous breakdown, and not a simple ghost story.  He understood that it’s not what you see, but what you think you see that’s most terrifying.   Director Robert Wise filmed The Haunting in a suitably imposing British manor, allowing the surroundings to speak for themselves as a suitable stand-in for a spooky New England mansion.  Wise and Gidding’s “Show them nothing” approach counted on the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks regarding the implied supernatural occurrences.

Wise chose to shoot The Haunting in black and white when color was becoming the standard.  Although black and white was clearly the perfect choice for setting the mood, this would be his last non-color film.  It’s hard to imagine how this would have looked in color, although it’s fair to speculate that Wise’s film would have been robbed of much of its power.  The black and white cinematography masterfully conveys somber tones, from the darkened hallways to the eternally staring, bone-white statues in the house’s conservatory.  Wise used infrared film for the exterior shots of the house to create an unworldly effect.  When we’re first introduced to Hill House, its gothic structure stands out with menacing grays, contrasted by luminescent white clouds amidst a foreboding dark sky. 

Dr. John Markway (played by Richard Johnson) is an anthropologist with a keen interest in the supernatural.  He’s fascinated by the myths and legends that surround Hill House, and is determined to discover its secrets through rigid scientific investigation.  Three guests accompany him: dowdy Eleanor, a 30-something recluse; Theodora (“Theo”), a free spirit with demonstrated psychic ability; and Luke, young heir to Hill House, playboy and all-around skeptic.  Over the next few days, the strange occurrences in the house will test their psychological fortitude and (in the case of Luke) skepticism.

Julie Harris plays Eleanor.  She has spent the past several years of her life under her ailing mother’s thumb, catering to her every whim.  After her mother died, she found a new oppressor in her sister’s family.  Socially awkward and depressive, but inexplicably drawn to Hill House, Eleanor sees Dr. Markway’s invitation as a means to live life anew.  True to her character, Harris spent most of the shoot isolated from the rest of the cast.  Eleanor builds an uneasy relationship with Theo (Claire Bloom) that vacillates between contempt and sisterly affection.  They represent polar opposites: fashionable and uninhibited Theo versus plain, repressed Eleanor.  Although nothing was explicitly stated in the movie, the filmmakers implied sexual tension between the two women as well. 

Russ Tamblyn, who worked with Wise previously in West Side Story, plays the affable but roguish Luke.  During the filming of The Haunting, Tamblyn, who wasn’t prone to believing ghost stories, decided to take a stroll on the manor’s grounds at night.  This led to what could be described as a supernatural experience of his own, when he abruptly experienced a chill on top of his head.  He promptly returned inside, afraid to look back.  Although this didn’t precisely alter his views on the supernatural, it seemed to open Tamblyn and his character’s mind to the possibility of the unexplainable.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Wise shrewdly chose to keep the ghosts in the mind, and not on the screen.  This doesn’t diminish the feelings of dread, but enhances them.  He understood the audience was capable of creating psychological terrors that could far surpass anything that mere visual effects could produce.  You wonder what’s lurking in the shadows, and your mind complies willingly.  The Haunting truly gets under your skin, staying with you long after the lights have gone on.

If the 1963 original was a masterpiece of doing more while showing less, then the dreadful 1999 remake is a textbook case of having little to say while showing more.  The remake erased any subtleties, with a “show don’t tell” approach that’s the complete antithesis to Wise’s version.  Only the characters’ names seem to remain intact.  It’s nothing more than a cynical exercise in Hollywood excess, showcasing overdone special effects and “ooga booga” scares, in the place of any real horror. 

In the absence of elaborate special effects, Wise relied on lighting, sound and acting to create the proper mood.  The performances by the cast are uniformly strong, building tension as the escalating events around Hill House become too frequent to ignore.  In the DVD commentary, Richard Johnson recalled a scene when Dr. Markway ascended a wobbly spiral staircase, one of the film’s most impressive set pieces.  Although the set’s staircase was designed to shake, depending on the tension of an inner supporting cable, Johnson felt genuinely apprehensive about scaling it, describing the scene as NAR (no acting required).  His emotions are real, and add an unintentional credibility to the supernatural phenomena in Hill House.

Reception for The Haunting was mixed during its initial release.  It didn’t really gain a following until years later, and can now be safely regarded as a classic.  Like Hill House, the film has stood the test of time, and will continue to do so for many years to come.  No matter what side of the fence you stand regarding ghosts and haunted houses, it can still send shivers up your spine, and remains the benchmark, by which all other haunted house films are judged.  Watch it with the lights out.

* For some reason, 80 years became 90 years in the film version.

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