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The Haunting Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 11, 2006

    The Haunting Review
    Welcome to another entry in the Retrofest, folks. This time, we can have a look at Robert Wise's fascinating adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting Of Hill House. Dropping the supernatural story's full moniker to just The Haunting, and opting to shoot it in lustrous black and white, he and screenwriter Nelson Gidding concocted a powerful mix of psychological torment, intense character study and a sense of spectral ambiguity that, over the years since its theatrical release in 1963, has become a benchmark for haunted house movies. Of course, Wise had learned some vital lessons from the time he spent working with Val Lewton on his marvellously atmospheric RKO chillers, Curse Of The Cat People and The Body Snatcher, deciding that restraint was a far more effective tool to unnerve an audience than to merely unleash a demonic onslaught upon them. But it also seems that he had absorbed some of Jack Clayton's own sensibilities from The Innocents (1961) - see separate review.

    Connected almost as though by some ectoplasmic umbilical cord, The Haunting and The Innocents share many things in common. Both are extremely successful adaptations of superior works of fiction (Shirley Jackson's afore-mentioned novel and The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James), both intermingle the supernatural and the psychological to the point where even the viewer is unsure whether the ghosts are imaginary or not, and both revel in visual and directorial styles that celebrate the cinematic medium to full effect. Jack Clayton worked wonders with The Innocents, creating a bewitching tale that plots the descent into madness and paranoia of a very susceptible female mind. Robert Wise, the director of such classic genre fare as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was similarly able to depict a fragile woman's splintering psyche within the unleashed imagination of a supposedly haunted house. The ambiguity so prevalent in The Innocents is brought to fore here, as well. Yet, of the two films, it is The Haunting that feels more supernatural.

    “Hill House had stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House ... and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

    When parapsychologist Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) gathers together a small group of disparate individuals to help him investigate the haunting of an isolated grand old house in New England, the site of a history of tragedies and ill-omens, he doesn't quite suspect the effect that one of his team, the repressed and shrew-like Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), will have upon the brooding atmosphere of the place. Or perhaps, the effect that a gothic mansion full of bad memories will have upon her. Beneath a very Hammer-esque bit of musical bombast, Markway introduces us to Hill House in his opening narration, detailing the tragedy of its owner Hugh Crain and of the ladies in his life. His second wife's demise from a tumble down the stairs - the first one hardly fared any better - results in a shock cut of a twisted neck, which is possibly the only physical nastiness in evidence in the entire film. But then, The Haunting is a film that chooses to keep its horrors hidden away, its violence a ravaging of the mind, not the flesh. Yet the violence of psychological collapse is no less devastating.

    Markway has brought Eleanor along as the star of his little venture into the unknown. Timid and withdrawn, she once exhibited telekinesis at the tender age of ten when, somehow, she instigated a shower of stones to fall upon her house for a period of three days. He hopes that her psychic abilities will act as a magnet for the strange forces he believes to be at work in the house. Theodora (a slinky, cat-like Claire Bloom) also has powers of ESP, but her skills lie more in rattling people's cages than investigating the fourth dimension. And, together with the troupe's trendy hipster, and devout sceptic, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit Hill House one day, the four visitors settle down to study the phenomena that resides in the labyrinthine old mansion. However, it is Hill House, itself, that appears to be examining them, as all manner of disturbances begin to plague the team - from cold spots and bad feelings to all-out psychic assault. Yet, the longer they stay in Hill House, the more attached to Eleanor these strange phenomenon appear to be.

    “Look, I know the supernatural is something that isn't supposed to happen - but is does happen!”

    Julie Harris is outstanding as the naïve and spinsterish Eleanor Lance, or Nell, as she becomes affectionately known. Her repressed lifestyle - spending most of it virtually shackled to the beck and call of her crippled old mother - creating an anvil-heavy lid upon her world, alienating her from society. That she is so eager to run away, to escape to Hill House and into Dr. Markway's rather indistinctly conceived experiment is the key to her breakdown. She believes that fleeing from such a claustrophobic life of commitment and crushed dreams can only be effected by her participation in this rather foolhardy enterprise. She believes that she will be seen as an individual, that she will make friends, and that she will find some purpose and sense of self-worth. Like Stephen King's immortal creation of Carrie White in his first book Carrie, Nell does not realise that her true path can only ever be one of self-loathing and, inevitably, self-destruction. Escape for her can mean only thing ... further tragedy. She believes that Hill House has been waiting for her. It hasn't - but it is certainly overjoyed to receive such an accessible conduit as Nell to whom it can communicate its innermost depravities. She is the film's forlorn message and, for her, there can be no happy ending. Harris seems to take this despondency very much to heart, too. She had a tough time shooting the film and it shows in every pained expression on her face, every anxious glance about the huge set and in her crippled attempts at independence. When she spars with Theo, there is a real anger there in her strangled, timid voice ... literally like a mouse roaring. Again, as with Deborah Kerr's prim and proper Miss Giddens in The Innocents, it is actually quite difficult to empathise with Nell - she is almost belligerently difficult to get a handle on. Yes, we feel sorry for her. Yes, she was a victim long before she ever set foot in Hill House. But her close-to-tears demeanour and so dreadfully “woe-is-me” attitude make it hard for us to side with her. Which is surely the point. If she could only pull herself together, then maybe she could cure the house of its ill feelings. Instead, she eggs it on by giving in to its manipulations, the two - Nell and the house, itself - living off one another in some bizarre existential symbiosis.

    “I could turn my car around and go away from here, and no-one would blame me. Anyone has a right to run away. But you are running away, Eleanor ... and there's nowhere else to go.

    As the cat-black sultry vixen Theodora, Claire Bloom is on fine, sexy form. Easily affronted and quick to tease, the character of Theo is a perplexing one. On the one hand, she is surely the complete opposite of Eleanor - sexually aware, socially confident and worldly-wise - yet, there are times when the two complement one another perfectly. Certainly, when the pair first meets, there is the potential for close friendship and camaraderie, their mutual awe at the house a bond that should become stronger as the movie progresses. Likewise, when the two are attacked by the violent noises surrounding them, they think nothing of cuddling up together for protection. In fact, it is Nell who is actually the most pro-active in retaliating towards to the otherworldly enemy, whilst Theo just cowers and whimpers. This is a terrific anchor into the vulnerability beneath her character's frosty shell. Perhaps, then, this is why Theo then finds it easier to harass and snipe at Nell later on, for the shy, disturbed one has seen her true colours. Either way, when the two men finally arrive and hear of the terrible experience the girls have had, there is a touchingly poignant moment when both Nell and Theo collapse in laughter (and, obviously, relief) at the ridiculousness of the situation. But I like the way that Markway's matter-of-fact telling of how the animal he believed was sniffing about outside his door led Luke and he on a wild goose chase. “You mean it was inside the house?” the girls ask, their laughter draining. “But how did it get inside the house?”

    The lesbianism of Theo's scratchy, smitten minx is actually very tactfully laced into the plot to drive an increasing wedge between herself and Nell. “You're unnatural,” Nell accuses her, finding it difficult to understand the persona of an independent modern woman. But then their spit-spatting rivalry in the movie is actually spurred on by the off-screen difficulties that the two had. Whilst Harris manages to keep it all perfectly in-context, you can see moments when Bloom's icy glare seems a little more than just filmic pretence.

    “Your aunt thinks that Hill House was born bad.”

    Richard Johnson was never my favourite actor. Always coming across as stuffy, pompous and a little too knowing to convince in any role means he lacks credibility or depth, more in keeping with a caricature than a character. And, to a degree, his performance as Dr. Markway in The Haunting just cements my opinion. But, having said that, his somewhat patronising approach is exactly what the role calls for. Only when his wife (played by the original Miss Moneypenny, herself, Lois Maxwell) appears and, against his better judgement, stays for the night at Hill House, does Johnson begin to put an edge into his calm and analytical parapsychologist. For him, the whole experiment had often seemed to be too jovial, too light-hearted and, at this juncture, it is necessary to have him injected with a bit of the chills if only to have us, the audience, lose a bit more of the foundation of dependability we had built up. Russ Tamblyn, fresh from Wise's own West Side Story, is obviously the goofball, wisecracking hook for us to hang onto. A total disbeliever in all things he can't see, touch or drink, Tamblyn's Luke is brazen, cocky and down-to-earth. It would have been all-too-easy to have had him as our hero and it is thanks to Gidding's screenplay (and, of course, Shirley Jackson's novel) that he comes across as, perhaps, the last person to whom you would run when the manifestations begin. Cleverly, for all his banter and ambition, he is the fish out of water when things start to go supernatural, all of his running about and breathless jibes only revealing just how out of his depth he really is in Hill House “after dark ... at night, when no-one can hear you,” as the morbidly comic housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) puts it, before scampering back off to town with her husband (Radio's “The Man In Black”, Valentine Dyall).

    The visual effects were groundbreaking in their day. The sinuous, organic bulging of the door as it virtually breathes is a marvellous sight even now. It calls to mind the astoundingly provocative visions that Rick Baker brought to David Cronenberg's awesome Videodrome - the TV screen (“the retina of the mind's eye,” as Brian Oblivion so succinctly puts it) as it stretches out to James Woods, being a particular case in point. Wise's use of a slightly distorted lens adds incredible depth to the setting, but also aids in increasing the polarisation of Eleanor's isolation. Just as Markway's deduction that every door in the house and every angle is off-kilter, so the photography enhances this sense of dislocation and broken geometry. The prowling camera loves the house though, tracking along its halls and corridors, chasing shadows and twirling around the estranged visitors as if it were borne on wings. In a couple of quite audacious shots, the camera has us hovering above the cast's heads, or loitering just beneath them - occasionally even having us perform both in one continuous travelling movement. Terrific angles from the roofs and parapets of Hill House lend bizarre views of the grounds and the driveway, the feeling of being lost within some intricate, meandering puzzle of shape and shadow a trick that Wise constantly plays on us.

    The famous set-pieces - the ferocious door-banging, the ghostly hand-grip - culminating in the agonisingly intense finale on the rickety old spiral staircase, just build and build, Hill House literally coming apart at the seams around poor Nell as she, herself, frantically attempts to keep her sanity together. Robert Wise, so much the master of steady, drip-feed tension and character, finally unleashing some unbridled emotion. But his steady grip on the mood throughout is never less than relentless. Even during the quiet moments - of which there are quite a few - the tension can still be felt being slowly ratcheted up a notch at a time. Wise is a very deceptive director, his films often feeling slow and measured, his unhurried approach actually masking a driving sense of inevitability. Curse Of The Cat People (his only partially related sequel to the classic Cat People) and The Day The Earth Stood Still can appear ponderous and faltering, yet there is actually a constant sense of impending doom scoring through them. Of course, Star Trek: The (slow) Motion Picture is the one that people mistakenly rail against the most. Personally, I love his style. He is at pains to build mood and character, eager to explore the psychology of a situation and those reacting to it, knowing instinctively that witnessing the effects of their anxieties to the terrors around them preys just as deeply on our own. He understands actors too, letting them discover the inner workings of their characters and giving them the opportunity to move about within their assumed roles. And, as with Curse Of The Cat People, he reveals a great degree of sincerity and understanding with regards to the female characters in a story. Even The Day The Earth Stood Still featured a strong leading lady in Patricia Neal, Wise going against the conventions of the day to ensure that even though his damsels may be in distress, they would still act without resorting to cliché, or formula.

    “The house ... it watches every move we make.”

    The original score, by Humphrey Searle, is an eerie, discordant delight. He fashions an atonal soundscape counterbalanced by unnervingly raucous surges, then juxtaposes this unnatural litany with beautifully lilting melodies that are, at once, mournful and ethereal. Eleanor's theme, for instance, is fragile and flighty, almost like a butterfly fluttering too close to a flame. It is a marvellous body of music that goes hand-in-ghostly-hand with the visuals, matching the fractured texture of Nell's mind and flirting with the insanity built into Hill House's stone and wood. His composition for the prologue sequence, called The History Of Hill House, is actually a musical tour de force, quite reminiscent of the frenzied approach that composer James Bernard would employ for his many scores for Hammer Films. As with The Innocents, though, the film works just as well when silence is allowed to dominate the soundtrack - sucking the air out of the room and prickling the skin with delicious ease. The tense moments poised in-between the famed aural assaults on the walls and doors weigh enormously with a sense of anticipation that seems to drown these brief lulls in the phantom pummelling - the silence, itself, deafening.

    “No-one lives any nearer than town. No-one will come any nearer than that.”

    Both The Haunting and The Innocents are poetically told, but The Haunting is perhaps the more lyrical. Eleanor's thoughts are like soft, urgent verses - panic and melancholy juggling like prose in her constantly agitated mind. And the film, itself, follows a kind of poetic tragedy, the whole thing buoyed by frenetic incidents that gradually build up, verse-by-verse as it were, into a veritable crescendo. The switch from Markway's introduction to Nell's stream-of-consciousness narration is all a part of this highly literate structure, the final epitaph ending up more of a lament than a simple signing-off. And whilst The Innocents is the dreamier, more surreal of the two, The Haunting possesses a much more physical presence. The threat posed by Hill House is more potent, the danger much more acute and obvious. Wise may not reveal his ghosts - well, unless you count the house, that is, which is the ghost - but their intimidation is severely felt throughout.

    The house, by the way, can be found about ten miles out from Stratford-Upon-Avon. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise as, even though the story is set in New England, the countryside is decidedly British. Nell's drive to Hill House gives this away all too clearly, as the houses that she passes on the way just don't look American, despite the boats placed nonchalantly outside in their gardens. But again, as with The Innocents, and all the best ghost movies, the atmosphere conjured up by an English location is entirely second to none. Somehow, mood and history intertwine, creating an end result that is deliciously other.

    The Haunting still casts a shadow over the horror genre today, and it is worth remembering that, without its startling sound effects and dazzling camerawork, it would be unlikely that films such as Dario Argento's Suspiria and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead series would have been quite so impressively inventive. I won't go into Jan De Bont's ill-received remake, though, despite the fact that - and you may find this hard to believe, given my huge love for all these original classics - I'm one of the very few who actually liked it, despite its junky, throw-everything-in-at-once approach being poles apart from the intelligence, restraint and style of Wise's original. Oh, and before I forget, check out the shot dissolve montage of Hugh Crain's young daughter as she turns into an old crone during the prologue. Is it just me, or can you see a brief second when Mark Wahlberg seems to put in an appearance? Just have a little look ... you'll see what I mean.

    Next time, folks, the Retrofest will cover the fantastical colour and adventure of George Pal's wonderful adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux.