THE HAUNTING (1963)
When it comes to an old fashioned ghost story such tales are usually better suited to the pages of a novel than the bright lights of the big screen. A tale of the supernatural relies chiefly on what is not shown as opposed to what is and the written word can carry much more ambiguity than a twenty-foot-high image can. By definition alone a movie is the opposite of restraint, having to rely on easily observable visuals to move the story along. This being the case it is a minor miracle that the Robert Wise directed The Haunting (1963) remains one of the best supernatural films of the twentieth century. It’s also one of the best cinematic examples of restraint in the medium.
The Haunting originated with Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. But whilst Jackson’s writings certainly provided the template it can by no means take all the credit for this celluloid masterwork.
Director Robert Wise had received much of his schooling under the infamous producer Val Lewton, renowned for his work in the low-budget horror films of the nineteen forties and fifties. Titles such as I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Cat People (1942) marked Lewton as a man who could achieve a subtle scare on a limited budget. Lewton’s teachings coupled with Wise’s earlier work as a sound and film editor had the would-be director in good stead to produce some of Hollywood’s most memorable pictures. Wise reached the ‘A-list’ in 1961 when he directed the much lauded West Side Story (1961). Owing MGM Studios one more picture under his current contract he came across the ideal material when reading Time Magazine’s review of Jackson’s novel. He approached MGM Studios with the text, who agreed to stump up the $1.1million required to make the picture.
Jackson’s novel is a supernatural tale in the most traditional sense, taking cues from the work of such genre pioneers as Edgar Allen Poe and H P Lovecraft. It told the story of Hill House, a towering gothic mansion whose history held a number of tragic secrets. Among those were the deaths of both wives of the original owner of the property, Hugh Crain. Thus Hill House garners a reputation as a less than savoury place to spend a night or two. Step forward Dr. John Markway whose work in paranormal studies has led him to the property. Hoping to gain evidence of the supernatural Markway approaches the current owner of the house to request permission to investigate. She agrees on the proviso that her nephew Luke accompanies the Doctor. In order to assist him in his experiment the Doctor writes to two ladies who have a history of contact with the unnatural world, Theodora who is said to have ESP ability and Eleanor Lance who we are told experienced poltergeist activity as a child. The foursome takes up residence despite some dubious warnings from the caretaker and maid. But it does not take long for the house to reveal its hand courtesy of some night time rumblings. These strange noises petrify Theo and Eleanor but seem to go almost unnoticed by the Doctor and the sceptical Luke. The ghostly goings-on intensify as does the tension in the group.
The primary focus of these ethereal happenings appears to be Eleanor, and it is towards her that the Wise’s movie swings as the conclusion nears. The arrival of Mrs Markway at the property and her subsequent disappearance causes Eleanor to reach an hypnotic state of fright. The Doctor insists Eleanor leave the house for her own good. By this point though Hill House has Eleanor under its spell, and will do anything to have her remain at the place forever, dead or alive.
On the face of it there seems to be little change from the position we find at the start of film to the situation we are faced with at the end. One group of four enters, the house shakes for a few nights, a different party of four leaves; modern viewers might see this as a tame ride. But in the twenty-first century some horror fans have had their movie-going senses dulled by new extremes in cinema. There seems to be an almost a blasé attitude amongst many audiences to the horrific acts portrayed on screen in modern scare pictures. Even more alarming is the ‘one-upmanship’ of various horror film creators, seeking to push for and hold the title of most extreme horror picture of the moment, each of the subsequent sequels to the original Saw providing a microcosm of this very principle. It is a process that can’t be reversed, the pushing back of cinematic boundaries dragging younger generations of horror fans further away from the thrills of yester-year. For every Wolf Creek (2005) that comes along movies such as The Haunting become even smaller dots on the thriller film horizon.
But it was always Wise’s intention to create a very restrained horror picture. Up until the release of The Haunting ghosts in cinema had rarely received a realistic portrayal and most were not in keeping with what some people believed was their very real existence. Many times a ghost would be utilised as a comedic element tin a story, a foil for such early comedy stalwarts as Abbett and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. In instances where a spectre was utilised as a genuine tool for scaring an audience it was mostly in the capacity as a stooge for a greater villain; the ghost itself would never be the ultimate focal point. This is not to say that actual studies of a paranormal nature did not exist at the time. Many of the supernatural elements that made up Jackson’s story had been documented and studied for years prior. But the majority of screenwriters figured that the average audience would not find sudden cold spots and strange noises in the night anywhere near as frightening as a gaggle of floating bed-sheets on the rampage. What Wise and Jackson recognised was that the believability of such occurrences would actually chill an audience to an even greater degree. It would be much easier for a cinema patron to suspend their disbelief for a creaky corridor than a radioactive duvet cover.
If one is able to imagine how a series of nights in a haunted house might play out, The Haunting will probably offer a close approximation of your imaginings. Running with this notion director Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding stripped Jackson’s tale of any events that occur outside the confines of Hill House; once our protagonists are holed up in the mansion so are we.. Also jettisoned was any sense of time. It is almost impossible to ascertain what time of day it is during much of the film, and equally difficult to nail down just how long the group have been in the house. In terms of standard time progression there is an almost surreal feel to the film, the dark corners of the house during the day time creating a feeling of constant night. Very little light filters through the windows and the only clue to possible time markers are the occasional domestic activities such as mealtimes and sleep. To compliment and enhance this mood Wise lavished attention on the creation of one of the stories key characters, Hill House itself.
If one is looking for the quintessential cinematic haunted house one need look no further than Hill House. Despite the story being set in New England, the exteriors were shot at Ettington Park near Stratford-upon-Avon, or ‘just outside London’ as the American members of the crew referred to it. This wonderfully gothic building is today a working hotel, but at the time of filming it was somewhat shabby. The building was still available as an inn of sorts but the garden and front areas were fairly overgrown. The rear of the property also had a small cemetery that had numerous headstones dating as far back as the 14th century. As a bonus for Wise the house was rumoured to be one of the most haunted in the country. Actor Russ Tamblyn even reported a “ghostly” experience one even during filming when he ventured into the cemetery area on his own one evening and felt an icy cold touch on the back of his neck.
Having already chosen to shoot the picture in black and white to embellish the dark shades and suggestions, the director shot many of the exterior views using infra-red film. The result is a strange emphasis of angry cloud against the menacing towers of Hill House. Eleanor’s doubts about entering the house when she first arrives require no voicing, though Wise obviously thought otherwise; the combination of fearful expression and the buildings towering shadows tell us all we need to know.
The Hill House interiors were all constructed at Borehamnwood Studios, with production designer Elliot Scott demonstrating why he was one of the best designers in the industry. Cluttered with all manner of threatening artefacts, but yet retaining a classical quality, the house always maintains its separation from its occupants. It is a house that can never be a home. Wise went one step further by requesting that the sets be made with ceilings to encase his actors even more. Despite the obvious lightning problems caused by enclosing the rooms the ceilings were added; you would never guess that the interiors were actually sets on a sound stage at all.
There were also many little touches added to the house’s look, from the sinister faces engraved on doors to the faces shaped out in the wallpaper. We feel just as uncomfortable and disorientated in Hill House as its four temporary occupants. The house has an almost organic quality to it, a living entity that is watching over its visitors; one almost expects a pair of eyes to start moving during the close ups of the statues contained in the house’s conservatory. As the ultimate scary venue, Hill House more than gives the Overlook Hotel a run for its money.
The scares, as subtle as they are, are all incorporated into the house, becoming as much a part of its structure as the fixtures and fittings. The noises utilised by Wise at night during the movie are absolutely chilling, ranging from laughs to cries and screams when in their more human guise and peaking with an ungodly rumble that shakes the very walls of the house. The most bizarre moment, and the clearest evidence gathered by Dr Markway of supernatural forces, is another part of Hill House working its dark magic. Near to the films conclusion our protagonists are holed up in one of the many living rooms with the thundering booms of the house coming to life heading their way. When the noise finally stops right outside the door to the living room the house itself appears to want at them. An unseen force pushes and bulges against a solid wooden door. This tremendous affect was achieved by having numerous crew members pushing objects into a specially constructed rubber door. It is the spooky highpoint, and the clincher for sceptic Luke who wastes a perfectly good bottle of whisky, dropping it to the floor in sheer fright.
Cast wise it may appear to be an ensemble performance, but the movie eventually reveals an ominous duet between Hill House and Eleanor (Julie Harris). Despite the early narration emanating from Dr. Markway, all voiceovers soon switch to Eleanor, starting with her anxious drive to the house and ending with her tragic affirmation. Many of the scares happen only to Eleanor and the audience, creating an unconscious bond between the two. We hold our sofa cushions just as tightly as Eleanor holds that mysterious hand. It is Eleanor that we fear for as it clearly her who the house is after, even writing to us in two foot high letters to tell us so at one point. The other three leads never appear to be in anywhere near as much danger as our heroine, the cock-sure Luke’s pessimism keeping him safe, the feisty Theo untouched despite her bout of the chills, and Dr. Markway perhaps a little too eager to allow his cohorts to suffer for the sake of his experiment. The only other character that appears to be in harms way is Mrs Markway but her late arrival to proceedings lends her an anonymity that somehow places her away from the spooky happenings. The pay off for the film is not as explicit as one might be expecting. But our early fears that Eleanor may come into harms way are certainly well founded, and surely this is evidence enough that something rotten lurks within this house.
Or then again perhaps not. Once the project had been green-lit, Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding sought out author Shirley Jackson to ensure that their interpretation of her work would be accurate. In Wise and Gidding’s mind they believed that this was not so much a tale of a macabre house claiming the life of an innocent woman, but rather one woman’s slide in to madness via her own bizarre hallucinations. Jackson set the men straight and told them that this was not the intention of her novel; she had not entitled it The Haunting of Hill House for nothing (and also offered Wise the alternative title which he eventually used for his film, The Haunting). However, Jackson liked the idea of the story progressing down this road and agreed for the movie to be made with this potential reading in place.
Such is the ambiguous nature of the scares and spectral events, an argument could be made that they are all just a part of Eleanor’s mind. Up until the point when Dr. Markway contacted her to request she be part of his investigations Eleanor lived a closed life, sleeping on her sister’s couch and caring for her mother. She was no doubt eager for thrills. Eleanor even admits that ‘It’s the only time anything exciting has happened to me’ and her reluctance to leave Hill House at the finale, ‘I want to stay here, I want to stay here always’, may be the biggest nod Wise gives us that this was not about a haunted house but rather a disturbed woman creating an elaborate, self absorbed fantasy. Dr. Markway’s seems determined to find any sort of supernatural occurrence and may well have entertained Eleanor’s imaginings to further his own studies. Luke as the sceptic nephew appears shallow enough to follow the party line and Theo may well have encouraged Eleanor’s stupor in reply to her rebuttal of Theo’s subtle advances.
All the actors involved carry their parts well, though the only real character arc belongs to Luke, who moves from cheerful cynic to sober believer over the course of the picture. Even so, it sometimes appears as if Luke has stepped into Hill House from another film so at odds is his playful manner with the events occurring around him. The character of Theo is also a touch difficult to judge thanks to some uneven writing. Theo’s involvement with Eleanor swings from snooty antagonist to petrified friend at the drop of a hat, which shakes the flow of the story somewhat. Perhaps the varying tensions on set explain this issue. At the time Julie Harris admitted to not associating with the other actors much during filming. This led the cast labelling her as somewhat aloof. But Harris confirmed subsequently that the depression caused by the role led her to isolate herself from the rest of the group, ‘I would cry in the make-up chair before filming started each day’. Clare Bloom as Theo was puzzled as to what she had done to upset Harris but her fears were alleviated once filming was complete, Harris visiting Bloom with a gift to apologise for her bizarre behaviour. The ‘outsider’ affect certainly shines through on film and carrying the brunt of the film’s emotional weight on her shoulders no doubt affected Harris.
The film had mixed reviews on its release. It was neither panned nor championed. Jackson’s novel was much celebrated but the same accolades did not befall Wise’s work. It was only subsequent to the movie’s release that its subtle ability to thrill with the authentic scares of a ghost hunt became apparent. Its lukewarm reception at the box office no doubt explains the lack of bandwagon rolling stock that usually follows a successful horror movie. This lack of imitators helped to elevate The Haunting’s reputation even further and it’s a movie that has a unique status amongst fans and horror auteurs. Its lack of effect-heavy scares was no doubt interpreted as the reason for its mediocre performance at the box office and following in its footsteps was a choice many studio moguls chose not to take.
This is not to say that The Haunting does not have moments of technical brilliance; watch for the brilliant camera work utilised during the spiral staircase scene for evidence of that. Lack of reliance on in-your-face scares though meant that an easy path to a quick horror film buck was not available to studios. It was left to television to learn from and continue The Haunting’s spooky legacy, with top notch scare mongering from the likes of Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968), The Stone Tape (1972) and Ghostwatch (1992). Actual films from the ghost sub-genre have been few and far between, but some successes have crept through, most notably The Amityille Horror (1979), The Changeling (1980), Poltergeist (1982), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001). The haunted house movie is an even slimmer genre, with only the excellent The Shinning (1980) being able to hold its own against Robert Wise’s picture. There have been other attempts at raising a few chills via a creepy residence, but most of these, The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Legend of Hell House (1973) House on Haunted Hill (1999), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), succumb far to easily to the trappings of the genre; the creaking doors, the snuffed out candles, curtains swaying in an unexplained breeze, the perpetual storm outside every window. An inevitable remake of Wise’s original picture was released at the end of the twentieth century, The Haunting (1999), but all the delicacies of the original were lost amongst a torrent or dry-ice and CGI nonsense.