27 October 2008

Movie review: The Haunting

The Haunting (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell

To understand my view of the 1963 film The Haunting, you have to know the two directions from which I approach it.

On one side, I view Robert Wise’s movie through the cracked, cheap plastic prism of the 1999 re-make directed by Jan de Bont—quite possibly the worst re-make ever. It does every single thing wrong, wrecks every moment that worked about the original. Even the score from Jerry Goldsmith, my favorite film composer, is lackluster. I had previously written that to do a proper review of the first Haunting would require a full comparison to the de Bont Haunting, and that would mean going back and watching the 1999 film. I’ve finally decided to big blue blazes with that torture. I’m not going to compare the two films any further than this paragraph. Perhaps this whole review will serve as therapy for me where I erase the re-make from my memory. I won’t mention the re-make again. I’m sorry I even brought it up.

The second approach to The Haunting comes from its source novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. I read the book before seeing the movie, and I can say without the slightest hesitation that I think it is the greatest supernatural horror novel ever penned. Few books have left me so awestruck as The Haunting of Hill House. It has the best opening paragraph of any novel I’ve read, and Jackson carries on the tension and fear and isolation from start to finish. It’s a masterpiece of characterization and mood—and yes, it will quietly scare the hell out of you.

Robert Wise’s black-and-white mounting of the movie version is one of the most respectful adaptations of any novel, right up there with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Director Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding understood what made the book wonderful, and put it on screen as best they could, changing only what needed to change to make it fit in the different medium. The bulls-eye casting, the oppressive art design, and striking photography all pay perfect homage to the aura of the book.

Is The Haunting my favorite horror movie? Ask me on different days, you’ll get a different answer. But right now, on this late October day approaching the wonderful 31st of the Month, I can give you a solid “yes.”

The movie shows its respect for Jackson’s work from the moment it starts. A male voice reads a variation on Jackson’s entrancing first paragraph over an image of a Gothic mansion (exteriors shot at Ettington Hall, quite a pleasant place in its moden photos) against a night sky. It ends with the the title coalescing from mist onto the screen:
An evil old house, the kind some people call “haunted” is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House has 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.
The speaker, we discover, is actor Robert Johnson playing the part of Dr. Markway (the name is changed from the book’s Dr. Montague), an anthropologist and psychic researcher who wants to use Hill House to conduct experiments. He narrates a series of scenes showing the bleak history of the house, which is an ideal prologue for the weird camera angles, sudden shock edits, and general uneasiness we’re going to experience. Hugh Crain built Hill House for his family, but strange deaths seem to have plagued it from the beginning; it was “born bad,” as Markway says. Hugh Crain’s lonely daughter lives out her life in the house, dying when her younger companion who watches over her fails to hear her tapping for help. The companion then hangs herself from the top of an iron spiral stairs in the library in a stylistic and unnerving sequence.

Markway narrates this unpleasantness with an academic cynicism that shows he feels Hill House and its psychic phenomenon can be approached in a scientific and analytical manner. But he doesn’t count on the K-2 of haunted houses, or the effect that Hill House will have on one of his chosen assistants.

Markway’s three companions for the stay at Hill House are Eleanor Lance—Vance in the book—(Julie Harris), Theodora No-Last-Name (Claire Bloom), and a young member of the family that currently owns the property, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn). Luke is an insouciant college kid who thinks the whole project is a joke. Theodora is an elegant, beautiful woman with ambiguous sexuality. But the focus of the story is distraught and neurotic Eleanor, a woman who has never felt as if she has had a life of her own. She has sacrificed many years to care for an invalid mother, and she sees the trip to Hill House as a last the chance to do something on her own, find something that belongs to her.

Harris’s performance in phenomenal: Eleanor is constantly furrowed, stressed, high-strung, and willing to lash out at the others in the house with little provocation. She tries to hold onto the idea of forming friendships and creating her own life, but everything makes her nervous and uncomfortable. She latches early on to Dr. Markway (a change from the book, where she was interested in Luke) to later discover he is married, and reacts violently toward Theodora’s ambiguous attitude of affection toward her. In all this, we can see the House’s doing . . . Hill House is literally eating away at Eleanor’s personality and claiming her.

Harris’s on-screen performance is accompanied by a voice-over of her thoughts, which allows even more of Jackson’s prose to get into the film. This is a rare time when an “internal-monologue” voice-over is used with such effect. We have a direct line into Eleanor’s disintegrating personality, and it is an unpleasant place.

Hill House is a visual marvel, a Gothic stone heap in which nothing seems to match up or make sense. It makes both the characters and the viewer disoriented and unsettled. The Cinemascope photography and deep focus lensing create a panorama of a very sick house, “deranged” as Markway calls it. There are no “ghosts” in Hill House, only the House itself: alive, aware, dangerous.

The fright scenes are some of the best ever put on screen. They start small, with doors that won’t stay open (they shut when the camera looks away), sudden chill-spots, and general unease. Then Hill House starts to bring out strange noises, writing on walls, wriggling doorknobs—a panoply of the things that make us stay up sleepless at night.

What’s amazing is that Robert Wise and his crew achieve horror without the use of special effects. Camera angles, zooms, edits, lighting, and in particular sound combine to make viewers jump and then make their stomachs twist into knots. Keep the sound up on your speakers while you watch The Haunting and the lights out, and I guarantee you’ll leap out of your skin when the house unleashes its power at night. The intricate camera set-ups use the widescreen to create eerie compositions contrasting the cast with the jagged protrusions and twisted halls of the house. There is no need for effects when the mise-en-scene is enough the claw up the small of your back and grab at your neck.

The only VFX visualization of Hill House’s supernatural power is the famous “breathing door” sequence that serves as the movie’s horror high point. It’s one of the tensest scenes ever put into a horror movie, and even found its way into the Haunted Mansion rides at the Disney resorts.

The tension keeps rising among the occupants of Hill House until the arrival of Grace, Dr. Markway’s wife (the late Lois Maxwell, a.k.a. Miss Moneypenny), causes the situation to boil over. Re-written as a no-nonsense skeptic from the book’s meddling mystic, Grace Markway’s presence is the tipping point for the increasingly unbalanced Eleanor. The film’s triple climax of the breathing door, collapsing metal spiral staircase, and Dr. Markway forcing Eleanor to leave when she believes that the house “wants her” contains some of most intense and shivery horror filmmaking.

Although I’ve put special attention on Julie Harris’s performance, the whole cast works together as a crucible, pushing and shoving against each other. Claire Bloom as Theodora knows exactly how to press the wrong buttons with Eleanor’s fragile psyche, Robert Johnson’s empirical approach to the supernatural shows just how little Dr. Markway really understands about what the house is doing to his little group, and Tamblyn’s Luke provides some welcome injections of humor while providing an audience surrogate to the slowly building otherworldly occurrences. Appropriately, it is Luke, who had hoped to live off of Hill House as his inheritance, who speaks the last on-screen line of dialogue: “It ought to be burned down, and the ground sown with salt.”

And I should mention Rosalie Crutchley, who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Dudley. Creepiest. Maid. Ever. (And I swore I would never use that Simpson meme. Sorry, but this movie just brings these things out in me.)

You’ve probably deduced by now that I like the 1963 The Haunting. I won’t doing any summing up. Go back and read the rest of what I wrote if you want convincing. Because right now, I’m going to go back and watch it again. (Or start re-reading the book.)

James Bond spotting bonus: Not only did Lois Maxwell play Miss Moneypenny in every official 007 film from Dr. No until A View to a Kill (yes, I’m discounting the 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again—aren’t you?), but actor Robert Johnson was director Terence Young’s top choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. He would have been very good, too.