Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A spooky favorite fondly remembered by nostalgic genre fans, The Haunting
will be a must-buy for many. Robert Wise's production was a rare A-picture ghost story
based on a best selling novel, and it helped pave the way out of the low
budget ghetto for scare shows. Wise's intense control of moods uses every trick he learned from his
first directing days with producer Val Lewton, and quite a few new ones as well.
An odd trio descends on the reportedly haunted Hill House, invited by Dr. John Markway
(Richard Johnson) to find proof of the supernatural. Nervous Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) won't talk
about it, but she was the center of a number of unexplained paranormal events as a child; and hard-edged
Theodora (Claire Bloom) is an all-but-confirmed psychic. Also along to protect his investment is
Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the heir to the difficult-to-rent property. It's not long before
something in the house makes its presence known - especially to the skittish Eleanor.
The Haunting was certainly much more sophisticated than the average haunted house film circa
1963; there had been good, satisfactory ghost movies before, like The Uninvited, but none
anywhere near the technical level of this Robert Wise production.
The ghosts never show up except as pounding noises, and an uncanny door that flexes from some unseen force.
Yet, among many pictures where the phantoms are clearly shown, this is the picture that more people
say gives them the supernatural willies. The general approval of The Haunting runs all the
way to horror author Stephen King, whose
telefilm Rose Red is a
quasi-official remake, right down to actually picturing the childhood rain of stones only
described here. Filmmakers have often copied Wise's mix of disturbing and unsettling techniques.
Taking the low-key approach, Wise uses the full Val Lewton formula of suggestion over manifestation,
giving us a spooky fun ride of weird things not-quite-seen, and strange sounds. The film has a
sophisticated audio track, especially for 1963. Excellent acting sells us on the basic menace of Hill
House, but Wise employs many clever effects, like visible freezing breath to represent a 'cold spot'.
In the scene showing Eleanor's home life, source music is played too loudly over the dialogue, adding
to the feeling of oppression.
Wise puts his familiar precise control of angles to good use. The compositions stress the location
people, dwarfing them in wide shots of ornate rooms, or leaving them off-balance in tilted
angles which necessitate constant re-oriention. Reject lenses with subtle distortions add to this
effect. The lighting is low-key, but not outrageously stylized or expressionist; the rooms are
interesting but never pretty. Wise does enforce a strict accounting of spacial relationships, so
we always know where people are in relation to each other - until he wants to trick us.
Wise uses Psycho's driving POV's for Eleanor, and her voice in a hushed, tremulous voiceover
that helps maintain the mood. Editorially, he keeps things graphic and simple, encouraging us to
scan nervous truck-ins on walls, rickety staircases, etc., in search of visible signs of ghosts.
It works: in one push-in to a piece of fancy wall decoration, we perceive a ghost-face in the design.
After that, we start looking for faces in the clouds that pass over Hill House. Wise uses his infra-red
film stock trick from Odds Against Tomorrow on the house exteriors, to give them a strange
More arcane but effective is the Robson-Wise-Lewton editorial trick seen in Bedlam: introducing
a third, 'phantom' image in the middle of an otherwise ordinary lap dissolve. It's very effective
in the film's flashback prologue, when we dissolve away from a staring corpse.
Since nobody had yet made a movie about a serious scientific investigation of a haunted house,
Markway's experiment was taken at face value. Spielberg and Hooper upped the ante in 1982's
Poltergeist by having the researchers haul in tons of flashy computer equipment. But how
Markway is going to derive anything scientific from this visit isn't clear. He talks about measuring
the temperature of the cold spot, but doesn't do it. There are no microphones, cameras, or other
recording devices. Does he expect scientists to accept the testimony of his companions?
Poor Eleanor is so unstable, anyone interviewing her after the fact would conclude that she'd
experienced hallucinations. Theodora is so manipulative and crafty, anything she'd say would
be suspect as well. Dr. Markway doesn't qualify as an objective observer because he constantly
pushes supernatural explanations for the phenomena they witness. That leaves young Luke Sanderson,
who provides a much-needed grounding in skeptical common sense. 1
Nelson Gidding's screenplay is structured as a slow assault on the Eleanor, a defenseless lost
soul desperate to escape her smothering family. The gothic family curse idea is given a similar
spin as in Psycho, with the difference that Eleanor's present persecutors are her supposedly
friendly companions. Luke isn't above making hurtful comments, and the sensitive Dr. Markway is either
dismissive of Eleanor's blatant attraction to him, or doesn't care. If he really believes that Eleanor
is so sensitive to the bad vibes in Hill House, he's selfishly cruel to let her stay.
Finally, there's the surprising character of Theodora. It's unusual and progressive for a lesbian to
be depicted this overtly in 1963, when her sexual orientation probably eluded many viewers, even
after Eleanor calls her 'unnatural'. Theodora's an interesting character who unfortunately
reinforces the old assumptions - she becomes violent at Luke's taunting touch, and puts malevolent
twists on all the relationships she sees. She's a psychological predator and her taunts have
the strongest influence on the sensitive Eleanor, who clearly would be a borderline case without
any supernatural involvement.
If the practical matter of ghost-busting is a bit vague, the dramatic curve of The Haunting
rises steadily to an impressive conclusion. Neither Markway nor Theodora bother to tell Eleanor
he was married, and the arrival of Markway's wife puts Eleanor in a state where the slightest jolt could
precipitate a disaster. The Haunting
is a superior ghost story that still doesn't overcome the stumbling-block of the whole subgenre: if
there's any chance for a rational explanation for weird events, anything non-supernatural is as
least as credible as the supernatural conclusions everyone is so fast to embrace.
The acting is much better than average, even for a Robert Wise film. Powerhouse actress
Julie Harris is in tight control of the frantic Eleanor, and Claire Bloom uses her cool authority
to good effect. Richard Johnson is much better than in his action and adventure movies
(Khartoum). In this serious company,
Russ Tamblyn is a pleasant diversion, providing level-headed reactions to all the portentious
dialogue. It's significant that we look to his responses for verification that
something impressive is really happening - everyone else is quick to panic.
real success is its theme of psychological persecution. Seen today, Eleanor is a desperate soul
looking for human contact, and being victimized for her trouble. She just wants a normal life, so much
so that she denies her spooky childhood experiences ever happened. If she runs meekly to her fate,
it's because Hill House is the only 'personality' in the film that wants her.
Warners' DVD of The Haunting is a good but not great presentation. The picture is enhanced and
sharp, but some scenes are contrasty and lacking in detail, as if the film element were down a generation.
The audio is also acceptable, but lacks dynamism. It isn't distorted, but the volume has to be set
high to get a reasonable level, and turning it up higher doesn't make it louder. Is this a
fuction of compression, or is the source a low-fidelity optical track? I'd like to stress that
none of these reservations do irreparable harm to the film. The original 1963 mix is so complex,
it's a very good thing that nobody decided to remix it in 5.1.
The knockout extra is a commentary track with director Wise, all four key actors and
screenwriter Nelson Gidding. Wise is animated and quick to tell all his secrets. Julie Harris
says she envisioned the Eleanor character differently, but played it Wise's way. Nelson Gidding and
Richard Johnson are enthusiastic as well. Claire Bloom talks about playing 'a woman attracted to
a woman' and the fact that Harris avoided a friendship during filming to maintain
friction between their characters. Russ Tamblyn excitedly tells of a ghostly experience he had
while making the film in England. Wise and Johnson are heard the most, while the women and Tamblyn
make much smaller contributions.
There's a still gallery that must be watched at a preset, slow speed - I couldn't even make it
back up. A 'great ghost stories' essay is a text overview of familiar movies. There's also an effective
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Haunting rates:
Movie: Very good
Sound: okay but problematic
Supplements: Commentary by Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Robert Wise,
and Nelson Gidding, trailer, Stills gallery, text essay.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: August 14, 2003
1. A college friend of
Savant was a cameraman who got a part-time job filming 'phenomena' for a bona-fide parapsychological
researcher at UCLA .. her name escapes me. After an initial interest in the 'Kirlian photography'
craze, he became quite disillusioned with her attempts to justify her department with 'evidence'
from dubious kooks. Almost
everyone interviewed had 'enablers' working like front-men to verbally convince the researcher that
the paranormal was real. He filmed telekinesis gurus who kicked the table to get things to move. "The spoon was bending by itself until just before you got here, honest" was
the famous line I remember. Remembering my friend's experience made seeing Ghostbusters
all that much more fun - especially when the bogus researchers get kicked off campus as frauds!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson