The Haunting (1963)
Most students encounter Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" while still in high school. It's got science fiction and horror elements as well as a great allegory about blind conformity and adherence to tradition. It's also one of the few horror stories, outside the works of Edgar Allen Poe and a couple by Nathaniel Hawthorne, that is Norton Anthology approved and, therefore, fit to present to young minds per our antiquated public school curriculum. While many of Jackson's stories found horror and discomfort in the everyday world of both urban and rural America in the mid-20th century, it should come as no surprise that she wrote one of the best horror novels of all time: The Haunting of Hill House.
If the name sounds familiar it was made into a miniseries in 2018 on Netflix by Mike Flanagan, although there was little resemblance between it and the novel. There was also a 1999 version called The Haunting which was filled to the brim with '90s style CGI effects. However, despite the fact that Nelson Gidding did change a number of things from the novel, the one time Hollywood got it right was the original 1963 version directed by Robert Wise.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is a professor who specializes in paranormal research, and he stumbles across the chance to investigate Hill House. While most haunted houses can be excused as hoaxes, overactive imagination or explainable phenomena, Hill House has a nasty reputation of murder, insanity and suicide, and Markway believes it is his best chance of proving that ghosts do, in fact, exist. The owners of Hill House insist that he take along their nephew, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who is set to inherit the house once they pass. He also reaches out to a number of other investigators who bow out one by one when they find out more about where they will be investigating. The only two remaining are the psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the troubled Eleanor (Julie Harris).
Eleanor spent most of her life looking after her invalid mother and, after her mother's death, was taken in by her sister and her family and treated in a patronizing, infantilizing manner. The trip to Hill House lets her escape, but she soon senses that the house itself is calling to her. Meanwhile, after they get settled in, events begin, including loud banging, cold spots, weird smells and disembodied voices. While the skeptical Luke tries to take it all in and Markway tries to do his investigation, Eleanor's mental state deteriorates and she becomes sure that Hill House is meant to be her new home.
Julie Harris's performance as Eleanor is going to have varying effects on viewers. I've seen the movie numerous times, and sometimes I find Harris's portrayal brilliant, and other times I find it annoying. It's because so much of the movie hinges on Eleanor and, while the way she is treated by her family is awful, she is not the most sympathetic creature. She immediately starts a fantasy in which Markway is in love with her, mistaking his kindness for affection, while lashing out at Theodora as she offers, in her own way, some true friendship while not hiding her attraction to Eleanor. Much of what we learn about Eleanor is through voiceover as we hear her thoughts throughout, making it quite obvious that, while she deserves better treatment than she gets from her sister, she is a disturbed woman who never got a chance to acclimate to society.
The Haunting was made in 1963 so it is never specifically stated that Theodora is a lesbian, but anyone paying half attention would notice. It was quite daring at the time but did not cause quite as much of a stir as the studio was concerned it would. Part of that is because she was presented in a way that could be written off as "Bohemian" if push came to shove. The production got certain breaks for casting Bloom and Johnson as The Haunting saved money by being filmed in England, with the exterior shots of the house being a real building and the interiors being on the usual sound stages. Although he's the leader of the group, Markway seems there just to mansplain the supernatural to everyone in earshot. Even if Eleanor may not be the most reliable narrator, nor a lead character one can easily sympathize with, Markway unfortunately feels like a plot device. Despite that Richard Johnson gives it a go, and late in the film his concerned wife Grace, played Lois Maxwell of Moneypenny fame, shows up as things reach their conclusion.
An important thing to remember about The Haunting is, although it had a modest budget, there was never any intention of physically showing the ghosts. There are few effects, and most of the tension comes from things unseen, both by those researching Hill House and by the audience. This is one of the rare instances where the audience is not more informed than those in the movie. Much of what one gets out of it depends on imagination and the willingness to accept that this is one of the few exceptions in which a house is truly haunted.
The lack of cheap thrills in The Haunting is a sticking point as much as Julie Harris's portrayal of Eleanor, but I really don't feel the movie to be slow. Deliberate would be a better term, as it manages to increase the tension right toward the end. Not having a bunch of sheet-covered skeletons on clothes hangers floating around is a plus, particularly since Robert Wise remembers to still show rather than tell. Even when given the exposition we see it acted out, and everything important happens on screen. Nothing against William Castle and his gimmicks; they are lots of fun, especially when accompanied by Vincent Price hamming it up. However, when one wants the audience to take the story seriously, this is the way to go.
The Haunting (1963)
Time: 112 minutes
Starring: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn
Director: Robert Wise