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The Haunting (1963)

by on 2011/10/26

“You must not expect every night to be Halloween.”

* * *

I was intrigued by The Haunting (1963). First I had to convince myself it was a completely separate title from The House on Haunted Hill (1959). Even more confusingly, both were remade in 1999, neither attempt particularly acclaimed.

The original Haunting was certified for general audiences, but counter-intuitively appeared on numerous horror lists. I wondered how a movie so rated — without any obvious violence — could succeed in winning viewers often impressed by gore.

I assured myself it was all down to Shirley Jackson, author of its inspiration, The Haunting of Hill House. As a teen, I’d been very impressed with her short story “The Lottery” — horrifying in its own right — and had similar expectations for “her” feature.

Set in mid-Twentieth Century Boston, the tale concerns a ninety-year-old mansion. Over the span of its existence, it has been the site of various terrible tragedies. Now, widely considered to be haunted, the house attracts the interest of a scientist, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). Conducting what he calls the “experiment” he solicits the help of supernatural believers to stay in the house, explore it, and document any unusual incidents.

The group includes Markway’s wife, Grace (Canadian Lois Maxwell, “Moneypenny” of the James Bond series), the building’s inheritor Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn, “Dr. Jacoby” of Twin Peaks), psychic “Theo” Theodora (Claire Bloom), and the oddly tragic Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris).

Luke is essentially a non-presence, and the Markways are suitably impressive despite their minimalism. The most commanding characters (and relationship) belong to Theo and Nell. The former is strongly suggested to be a mod or beat lesbian. Whether attracted to Nell or not, she is definitely protective of her new friend.

For her part, Julie Harris’ character reminded me of other similar victims, especially Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby, and Sissy Spacek’s in Carrie. However, she struck me as comparatively unsympathetic . . . damaged and vulnerable, yet unpleasant in demeanour, what Gru suggested as “fragile, drab craziness.” (As for the complex relationship between Nell and Theo, Gru characterized it as “the Spaz and the Diva”.)

Just as striking as their shrill histrionics — but quite a bit more satisfying — are the visuals of The Haunting. An Expressionism more Gothic than noir is the overriding effect. Extreme high contrast black and white renders the film nearly more bi-tonal monochrome than grayscale. Canted angles, panning, and jump cuts combine with careful lighting, focus effects, and unusual surface textures to create an interpretive environment.

Theatrical tricks heighten the tension without gimmicky scares or post-production effects: the slight motion of untouched doorknobs, the convex distortion of shooting through an old mirror, an interesting demonstration of visible, frozen breath, and the deformation of a flexible prop door. Only rarely are such tricks unsuccessful, specifically a clumsy zoom, and a rough tracking shot up a spiral staircase.

The sound design impressed me as much as most of the visuals did. Given the unseen threats throughout, the audio is worked unusually hard to deliver shocks, suggest the supernatural, and communicate mental states.

The net effect, oddly, is a whole which feels neither English nor American. Completely different in tone than many of the recent classic horrors I’ve screened, I was put more in mood of a Merchant Ivory period drama than a B-level monster-fest. I was pleased, at one point, to hear mention of Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 story, “The Lady or the Tiger”. That reference seemed perfectly in keeping with the literate tone of ambiguity.

Later still, I began to sense the reference had deeper implications. Though interesting as a piece of psychological suspense, it also offered a problem with no resolution, or acceptable rationale. Characters believe, say, and do things for reasons they cannot satisfactorily explain. Not to venture too far into spoiler territory, I will say I found the climactic scenes most guilty of this “easy out” lack of accountability.

My hopes had been high and — while my eyes and ears were happy — my brain was unsatisfied. In short, the sound and fury was fine, but it truly signified nothing.

I don’t believe my expectations were at all unreasonable. After all, in addition to a story by Jackson, the renowned Robert Wise gave direction. His career ran the gamut from fantastic (editing Citizen Kane and directing 1951‘s The Day the Earth Stood Still) to less-favoured (West Side Story and Star Trek: The Motion Picture).

Here he worked in tribute to his mentor, producer Val Lewton. And despite being an admirer of Lewton, Wise didn’t reach me in the manner of something like 1942’s Cat People. Instead The Haunting felt like a landslide victory of style over substance.

* * *

Rated G

112 minutes

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