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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 over the 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 look.
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.
The Haunting's 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 original trailer.
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!