As it’s Halloween, today’s film had to be something supernatural. So here’s my chosen paranormal classic, The Haunting – a black and white psychological horror from director Robert Wise (The Sound Of Music, The Day The Earth Stood Still). Although The Haunting’s box office success was average back in 1963, it has since gone on to achieve cult film status, with Martin Scorsese naming it as the scariest horror movie of all time in 2009.
Based on the book The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the film sees ghost hunter Dr. John Markway unite a team of researchers to investigate supernatural phenomena at the creepy Hill House. The film opens on the dark and spooky silhouette of this New England mansion set against the dark and cloudy night sky. A narrator provides us with a short history of the ‘evil house… a house that was born bad’. With a history of strange, violent deaths and insanity, Hill House offers Dr. Markway the perfect opportunity to gather evidence of the paranormal. Joining him is the heir to Hill House, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), along with a clairvoyant, Theodora (Claire Bloom). But Markway’s most compelling recruit is the gentle but disturbed Eleanor (Julie Harris). Experiencing psychic abilities that make her feel connected to the house, Eleanor has spent most of her adult life caring for her invalid mother.
Eleanor is one of the most interesting characters encountered in film. Her isolation makes her naive and inexperienced for her age and she finds it difficult to interact socially. Harris gives a stunning performance, conveying Eleanor’s fear, desperation and sadness with power. We hear Eleanor scrabble with her disparate thoughts and emotions in a stream of consciousness narration that Harris unites perfectly with her uncomfortable body language. ‘Am I the public dump for everyone else’s fear?’ she screams as the other characters request that she leaves Hill House.
The film becomes as much about Eleanor’s state of mind as the supernatural events taking place, creating a deeper layer of tension and drama. As we watch Eleanor fall hopelessly in love with the married Dr. Markway, it’s difficult not to feel pity for her, and her grip on reality becomes ever looser. Eleanor’s feelings for Markway prompt jealousy from Theodora whose cruel jokes further unhinge Eleanor, giving the film deep intensity and a number of fierce scenes that see Eleanor become further unhinged and excluded. Wise uses Eleanor’s state of mind to question Hill House’s supposed supernatural phenomena – how much of it is real and how much is perceived by this possibly insane character? Wise reportedly theorised that Jackson’s novel represented the insane thoughts of Eleanor while held in a mental institution – the insanity theme plays a large part in the finished film.
This is a chilling horror film with scares that last. Although the audience doesn’t get to see any ‘ghosts’, fear is generated through the way the images are captured by Wise and Boulton. Cold spots and sounds in the night are the extent of the supernatural phenomenon but these are presented carefully and with imagination. Wise had a pre-scored soundtrack produced for the cast to play off, and many of these sounds can be heard in the finished film, offering the performances greater realism. The ideas suggested in much of the dialogue also help to generate fear through the unknown – ‘you’re asking me to give names to something that hasn’t got a name’ says Dr. Markway.
Most importantly, the Haunting is visually imposing. Director of photography, Davis Boulton, used infra-red film to emphasise the sinister exterior of Ettington Hall. Filming much of the action inside the ‘house’ with few windows makes for a claustrophobic atmosphere. The attention to detail in the set design is impressive – gargoyles, veiled statues and baroque design transport the audience into another world. Wise also utilises creative camera movement to unnerve the audience – rapid zooms, canted angles, birds-eye views, low angle shots and short takes that are shown in quick succession, all make for an unnatural perspective. The camera is often cleverly positioned to enable the images to shock – two deaths early on are creatively captured with the intention to scare. Later, the camera tracks swiftly up a perilous spiral staircase as the film reaches its climax.
The Haunting is a chilling psychological horror film with a fierce emotional undercurrent. The performance from Julie Harris is outstanding and the creative photography from Davis Boulton is impressive. It’s a classic ghost story that uses the viewers’ own fears and imagination, rather than explicit gore, to create powerful scares.