Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Haunting (1963)

Who actually bites their nails in horror?  Seriously. Anyone?I finally got a chance to see Robert Wise's original 1963 version of The Haunting the other night, thanks to Dalekboy.

I am a huge fan of William Castle's 1959 House on Haunted Hill, in which an unapologetically B-grade spookfest is elevated to greatness by one of Vincent Price's signature performances. My highest hope for The Haunting was that it would be like House on Haunted Hill only moreso, and that hope was both met and exceeded.

The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill share some superficial similarities. They are both "spend the night in a haunted house" tales; they both feature groups of strangers drawn together by a charismatic gentleman; both stories have a creepy caretaker couple, an emphasis on the layouts of bedrooms and hallways, and a plot largely driven by a hysterical ingenue who may well be hallucinating more ghostly activity than is actually occurring. House on Haunted Hill, though, is strictly confined to the realm of cliche, despite some wonderfully ghoulish dialogue by screenwriter Robb White, whereas The Haunting is a full-fledged adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, complete with gorgeous narration of that book's opening paragraph:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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."
The Haunting is unusual for a haunted house story in that it consistently underplays its hand. Eschewing ghosts and gore, it instead builds a pervasive horror through nothing more than sound effects, rattling doorknobs, and the continuous internal monologue of lead character Eleanor (played by Julie Harris). The monologue, which in other films would have been a crutch for bad storytelling, here is the star of the movie, and the growing discrepancy between Eleanor's narration and the objective reality on screen is the source of much of the movie's power.

Harris gives a fantastic performance as Eleanor, although Claire Bloom's understated and sympathetic portrayal of lesbian sidekick Theo steals the show. (Compare Bloom with Catherine Zeta-Jones' one-note rendition of the role in the 1999 remake.) The only weak point is Richard Johnson as gentleman host Dr John Markway; Johnson plays the role as a genial, wholesome father figure, while the reactions of the other characters suggest his intentions are considerably more dubious than the acting supports.

This is horror done to perfection; it's easily one of the great creepshows of film history and ranks with The Shining and The Exorcist as a movie that exceeds its genre. If, like me, you'd been slack on seeing this piece of our cinematic heritage, take the time to catch up at your earliest opportunity. And if you see this on DVD at a physical storefront in Canberra, let me know so I can go grab a copy for my own shelf!

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