Sunday, 31 October 2010

Reel Retrospective: The Haunting (1963): An Evil Old House?

It's Halloween - and that means the TV schedules are crammed with classic horror films. One of cinema's most controversial and derided genres, for me, the greatest terror of a horror film derives from something implicit, something fateful...something alien...So turn off the lights, ignore the trick or treaters and curl up with one of the all-time great ghost stories, The Haunting. And yes, this is a retrospective review of the 1963 original, not Jan De Bont's 1999 remake that saw Owen Wilson's surfer dude bonce go flying across the room. 'Cos that's not scary, just funny.


'An evil old house - the kind some call haunted - is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored...' The Haunting, Robert Wise's 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's landmark psychological thriller 'The Haunting of Hill House', begins thus. One of the all-time magnificent openings to a horror film, the silhouetted form of the house in question is accompanied by hushed narration from Richard Johnson's psychic researcher Dr Markway and Humphrey Searle's eerie, jangly score, all of which conspires to create a potent sense of dread and ill-defined evil. Bottling the ambiguous, cryptic essence of Jackson's complex novel perfectly, it's a terrific tone-setter for a ghost story in which no ghosts are seen.

But then, what do you define as a ghost? An apparition or something that stalks the dark recesses of the mind? Jackson never answers the question in the novel - and never answers the enigma of Hill House either. Wise's and screenwriter Nelson Giddings' fundamental understanding of the author's brain-teasing universe ensures the film version of The Haunting has remained as evergreen as its source material. As Markway details the grisly history of Hill House in the brilliantly creepy opening prologue, the audience is placed in a unique position, never sure whether they're witnessing supernatural events, or are watching a series of tragic occurrences unfold. But Hill House certainly boasts the kind of rich background essential for any spooky story, a ghoulish range of deaths linking back to, and centering around, the house's original owner Hugh Crain. In a fabulously terrifying, near silent moment (save for the musical score), one of Crain's wives appears to be pushed down to the stairs to her doom, her face a mask of terror. As Markway intones when the camera settles on her body:
'I haven't been able to figure out how she died'.

The ambiguity extends to the remainder of the narrative, which plays out in the modern day. A group of disparate characters assembles at the house for a psychic investigation carried out by Markway. Seeking proof of the existence of the supernatural, Markway's subjects comprise Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), next in line to inherit the house; mysterious Theodora (Claire Bloom)...and Julie Harris' Eleanor Lance, the most brittle, fragile and confounding construction in the film, more so than the bricks and mortar of the house itself. Already racked with guilt over her mother's death, Eleanor is a frustratingly enigmatic presence, the centrifuge to an increasingly baffling series of events that may exist entirely within her mind...or may be the result of some dreadful connection to the house itself.

Far from overloading the story with daft, pointless effects (the fatal mistake Jan De Bont made in his remake), Wise has a firm grasp on the novel's texture (and one senses he actually read it as well). As a result, The Haunting has a cold, aloof quality that is tough to get a handle on, and reportedly this is how Harris was directed to steer her character. But the gorgeous black and white photography (by Davis Boulton) keeps one gripped, and Elliot Scott's production design is sensibly understated, emphasising the sense of terror arising from seemingly banal, ordinary scenarios. Whether it's about ghosts or not is entirely open to debate: the focus lies with Harris and her ensuing breakdown, which the actress conveys in effectively flinty fashion.

It's a picture full of unexplored avenues, especially Eleanor's baffling relationship with the glamorous Theo (again overdone to sometimes hilarious proportions in the remake). What, then, are we watching? The fantasy of a frustrated middle-aged spinster? Harris' furtive traces of voice over only serve to draw us further into the vortex, adding further layers of complexity to what appears to be a straightforward tale. And while Tamblyn's cocky Luke is a hilarious 60s youthful archetype, Markway comes with his own mysteries, especially when his sceptical wife (Lois Maxwell) turns up late in the tale.

Wise also uses the fabric of cinema itself to better visualise Jackson's off-kilter universe, deploying then untrendy black and white stock plus a variety of strange lenses and angles to give the physical production a psychological edge. Scenes and set-pieces are celebrated in their calm horror: incessant pounding at Theo's bedroom door (accentuated by fish-eye lenses); Eleanor asking 'Who was holding my hand?' in possibly the most frightening scene, when she realises Theo was sleeping across the room. Even when the horror appears to be made literal (most famously in the 'breathing door' scene), one can never be sure of what is true and what isn't, so careful has Wise's application of mood been.

Bearing this in mind, it's admirable he chooses to end as Jackson did: in puzzling, ominous fashion, amplifying rather than compromising the menace, never quite underlining what it is that has scared us. It's certainly a more intellectual exercise than similar efforts like 'The Innocents' - but its suggestion that evil lies in individual perception sticks with us like breath on the back of the neck. It all goes back to the brain-nagging image of the house itself: a black monster blotting out the sky, or just an ordinary house? All we know is, as a metaphor, Eleanor and the house are one and the same, both concealing hidden depths that we can never hope to understand. As Eleanor herself says, in an inversion of Markway's opening dialogue: 'We who walk here...walk alone'.

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