"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
They say some houses are born bad, and so it might be with Hill House. Jealous, it might have destroyed its original owners, the Crain family. It might be waiting right now. Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is sure that Hill House is watching her. But maybe she is just paranoid. After all, the poor girl just watched her domineering, invalid mother die. So maybe she is just not right in the head.
Perhaps Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is making a mistake, bringing Eleanor to Hill House for his psychic research. Theodora (Claire Bloom), a would-be seer, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the future heir of Hill House, have much more reason to be there. Not that Hill House takes kindly to their intrusion.
Maybe, just maybe, Eleanor, who has nothing to go home to, can find a reason to stay. Maybe Hill House wants her to stay.
Or maybe it is just a dangerous trap.
So many maybes. That is, after all, what characterizes both Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, arguably the best haunted house novel ever written, and Robert Wise's superior 1963 adaptation of that novel. We never see anything overt, and even the haunting itself might only be the creaking of a house whose angles, Dr. Markway is quick to tell us, do not fit together quite right. Unfortunately, the only person who could answer for sure what haunts Hill House is, how shall we put it, a little unstable. Eleanor Lance comes to Dr. Markway's experiment already traumatized, already haunted by a mother whose menace (spelled out more clearly in the book than in the film) is only slightly less imposing than the walls of Hill House.
Are there ghosts in Hill House, or is Eleanor only tortured by her own shapeless self-loathing? Jackson's novel never answers this. Perhaps Eleanor only brings her own demons along. Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding shrewdly stay on the path, giving their adaptation the necessary psychological approach to keep us guessing. Stephen King, who talks extensively about Jackson's novel in his survey of horror, Danse Macabre, was sufficiently influenced by the story to not only write his own haunted house novel (The Shining) but to borrow Eleanor's psyche for Carrie. But neither of King's books contains a fraction of the mystery of Jackson's novel or Wise's film. Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick saw how well the puzzle-nature of The Haunting worked and made his film of The Shining equally and maddeningly ambiguous, and its ghosts equally elusive. Jan De Bont, director (if such a word can be used) of the 1999 remake of Wise's film, staged a noisy train wreck instead, slapping together the worst literary adaptation since Demi Moore skinny-dipped as Hester Prynne.
But we are talking about The Haunting, and the key question here is whether this film stands on its own. The answer is certainly yes. Robert Wise, stripping down to basics between two grand musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), operates much like Hitchcock does in Psycho: keep focused on the story, suggest more than you show, and let the camera carry the audience along. Wise knows when to move, tilt, and cut to create the strongest effect, A little sound and a lot of suggestion generate intense atmosphere, but never distract from the characters.
For all its size, like some gothic monstrosity, Hill House feels surprisingly claustrophobic, as Eleanor begins to feel the pressure mount. No computer graphics or other trickery is necessary to give it a looming menace: just judicious camera angles and sharp black and white photography. The Haunting requires black and white, even if its answers are shrouded in grey. I have watched this film several times over the years, taught the novel, and I still continue to find Wise's film chilling, from Mrs. Dudley's virulently false smile to Humphrey Searle's ambient score.
The cast, occasionally dominated by the presence of the house itself, never overplays. This is especially crucial for Julie Harris, as the breakdown of Eleanor over the course of the film could turn into B-movie scenery chewing. Nelson Gidding's screenplay is obligated to tone down some of Eleanor's sexual ambiguity from the book, as well as making the flamboyant and predatory Theodora more domesticated. In a way, this hampers Claire Bloom with a character who does not have so much to do but play off of Eleanor's hysteria, more like a calmer, older sister. Nonetheless, Bloom and the rest of the cast take what could easily be melodramatic types (the rational doctor, the dissolute son, and so on) and keep them grounded—which only serves to make the weird happenings at Hill House all the more frustratingly opaque.
Few questions are answered by the commentary track on Warner Brothers' DVD release of The Haunting. All four of the main cast members, plus Robert Wise and Nelson Gidding, give separate accounts of the film's production. Gidding notes that Shirley Jackson told him that the ghosts were real and not just in Eleanor's head, but given how artfully constructed her novel is, I suspect she was just pulling his chain. Claire Bloom and Robert Wise confirm Theodora was meant to be a lesbian (although it does not come across in the film). But most curiously, Julie Harris, who seems rather ambivalent about the film, seems to channel Eleanor a bit and claims the rest of the cast alienated her during the production. The others claim she was the one who was aloof. Like the film, perspective clouds everything.
A stills gallery, with Wise's annotated screenplay, promotional materials, and behind-the scenes shots, as well as a fairly useless "essay" on ghost films (really just a list) round out the extra features. But the crucial feature of this DVD is the crisp transfer that only exhibits minor age-related flaws and the sharp mono soundtrack. You will swear—and perhaps this is just the effect of Wise's camera—that the spooky noises are coming to you in stereo.
The Haunting is a film that requires patience. If you are looking for garish special effects that bury the characters, by all means go fork over your money for Jan De Bont's tripe. If you prefer your horror psychological, try watching The Haunting with the lights out, let yourself sneak into Eleanor's disordered mind, and feel the chills. This is a horror movie with a brain, and something Hollywood made few of in 1963 and makes even fewer now.
This court orders the gates of Hill House unlocked, so that Warner Brothers and Robert Wise can go free. Hill House is ordered to…oh hell, Hill House is on its own. I'm certainly not messing with that place.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Cast and Crew
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