31 Days Of Horror #22: The Haunting (1963)
An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.
A film often put high on many “greatest horror movie of all time” lists, and certainly one always mentioned when haunted house movies are being discussed, The Haunting is rightly famous as a perfect example of how to create tension and dread without showing anything to the audience. Based on “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, this is an undisputed classic of the genre. Personally, I prefer both The Innocents and The Legend Of Hell House, but this deserves to sit right alongside them.
The plot is simple. A scientist invites some people to a haunted house; a woman who experienced poltergeist activity in her childhood, a woman who claims to be psychic, and a male relative of the current homeowner. . Strange things start to occur, affecting one of the guests a lot more than anyone else. Can it all be explained away, or is there something walking the corridors of the house?
What you have here is a great script from Nelson Gidding, who had the advantage of working from Jackson’s original tale, elevated by direction from Robert Wise that intuitively knows where to take the audience, what to show the audience, and what to leave up to our imagination (resulting in the famous sequence that has an unseen force making lots of noise on the other side of a closed door).
The simple story is given interesting layers and complexity thanks to the characters in the mix, all of them brought to life by some great performers. Julie Harris plays Eleanor Lance, the nervous and downtrodden woman who feels some connection to the house. Claire Bloom is Theodora, a slightly tougher soul who initially pairs up well with Eleanor. Russ Tamblyn is the young male guest, and Richard Johnson is Dr. John Markway, the man responsible for the whole experiment. While all very different in their approach to the experiment, each of the cast members excel both individually and also within the fluid group dynamic. The majority of the film falls on the shoulders of Harris, and she deserves praise for not allowing her performance to simply come from constant nervy tics and twitches.
As clear-cut, or as ambiguous, as you want it to be, The Haunting is a fine film to enjoy for the sheer entertainment value, and an equally fine film to enjoy while dissecting various notable scenes.
DIRECTOR: ROBERT WISE
WRITER: NELSON GIDDING, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SHIRLEY JACKSON
STARS: JULIE HARRIS, CLAIRE BLOOM, RUSS TAMBLYN, RICHARD JOHNSON, LOIS MAXWELL
RUNTIME: 112 MINS APPROX