(Robert Wise, 1963)
(essay by Troy)
Expectations can effect your view of a horror film as much as anything. My first foray into The Haunting I wasn’t expecting much more than an intelligent, well-regarded ghost story, because how scary can a G-rated black and white film from 1963 truly be? Yet this is one of those horror films that if you watch it with the lights down and the sound turned it manages to creep all around you, causing an overwhelming feeling of dread to rise up. There’s a feeling of someone or something unseen, eyes peering down on you, yet you can’t look back. Or of your hand hanging by your side and having it suddenly grabbed by an unknown force. It’s our innate fear of the uncanny that The Haunting exposes so well.
The film concerns the notorious Hill House, which has “stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more.” In a short five-minute span we see a history of death surrounding the house, how both of Hugh Crain’s wives died there and how this led to his daughter Abigail spending her entire child and adult life living in her nursery. An elderly Abigail dies one night when her caretaker was too busy with a paramour and didn’t hear her calling for help. In the present day, we are introduced to Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) who is intrigued by the supernatural history of Hill House. He enlists two women with supposed paranormal abilities, spinster Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), and bohemian Theo (Claire Bloom), as well as the heir to the property Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), in an attempt to have the four of them inhabit the house to determine if there are any otherworldly forces in the house.
The Haunting was not Robert Wise’s first foray into horror, having cut his teeth with Val Lewton on The Body Snatcher and Curse of the Cat People. It was in between making two musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music) that he read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and immediately saw the connection between her style and Lewton’s and pushed to make this film. The melding of the two must have seemed perfect, as Lewton and Jackson were both known for their subtlety, ambiguity, and use of suggestion to delve into the psychology of how the unknown horrifies us.
Wise impressively makes Hill House feel like a living, breathing (sometimes literally) individual. As Eleanor walks up to the house she intones that it feels as if the house is “looking at me.” Wise follows with a series of high-angle, POV shots from the house’s perspective and shows windows that feel like they are manifested as glaring eyes, along with a myriad of spires, gargoyles, and statues, all seemingly looking down at Eleanor. He then follows with a series of shot reverse shots, implicitly making the house a character that is interacted with. As Eleanor knocks on the front door, a cherubic door knocker bores a hole into her with its eyes. Once in the house, she scans the room and we are implored to find something sinister in the sea of overly ornate decor. We end the scene with Eleanor’s face reflected in the floor, along with an overhead light fixture, which looks like two sets of eyes watching her.
Throughout the film, similar techniques are used. Wise’s camera never seems on the level, always canted. In most shots there is a mirror or statue, the ghosts of the house seeming to inhabit each of them and look at and move with us as we pass. The house is already disorienting by the nature of it’s composition, as all the doors are hung slightly off-center, all the angles slightly off, leading it to becoming “one big distortion.” Wise furthers this by using an anamorphic Panavision lens in many shots to create distortion and a sense of movement around the edges of the screen. There’s also the short, almost subliminal superimposition of the cherub door knocker in a later scene, the effect of a door’s panels being “pushed in,” the extended close-up on a door knob ever so slightly turning, and the long zoom-in on a portion of the wall that surely contains a face (or does it?). Wise adds to this an aural assault that completes the disturbing nature — from strange muffled voices to distressingly loud and disorienting banging sounds, these further the unsettling nature of what happens.
At the core of the film lies an examination of Eleanor and her relationship with the house. From the beginning we see that Eleanor is a repressed and oppressed woman. She is struggling to break free and experience life on her own. She’s not had the chance to make her own choices as she has felt forced to care for her ailing mother for much of her adult life. Thus, the sudden opportunity to leave this stifling life is all she has left. As she drives up to the house she tells herself that “”I hope, I hope, I hope this is what I’ve been waiting for all my life.” This desperation is what eventually leads to the schizophrenic relationship that manifests via her experiences at Hill House. Eleanor comes to believe that the the house is something that finally wants her, even if it is somehow pushing her toward death, that after a life searching for affection and attention, she now has it. Of course, while being pulled in by that, she also pushes away as she feels an incredible amount of guilt by being in the house due to the death of her mother, the final moments of which mirrors the death of Abigail Crain.
This inability of Eleanor to make up her mind about her feelings toward the house is also duplicated in her muddled relationships with both Theo and Dr. Markway. There is a sexual tension between Eleanor and Theo (who is obviously a coded lesbian) that leads to Eleanor appearing to be interested in Theo’s flirtations, yet at the same time much too fearful to ever attempt such a relationship. When she works towards gaining the less “unnatural” (her words, not mine) attention of Dr. Markway, she is soon thwarted when his wife visits the house. While Eleanor expresses her disdain for Mrs. Markway in terms of her relation to Hill House, purporting that Mrs. Markway can’t “satisfy” the house and that it “wants” Eleanor and not Mrs. Markway, she is clearly referring to Dr. Markway here, as much as she is the house.
The love/hate nature of all of these feelings makes for a frustrating experience (well portrayed by Harris’ stagey acting style and socially awkward body language), as we truly want Eleanor to find peace, but soon realize she is incapable of it. It’s a complex web of emotions that lead to Eleanor’s determination that if she can’t have Dr. Markway and won’t have Theo, then the house is as all that’s left for her and that she is slowly becoming a part of the house and drifting away from reality. It all leads to the finale, when she is forced to leave and we can’t be sure if it is her hopelessness or the supernatural forces of Hugh Crain that control her steering wheel as she fatally crashes into a tree.
As perfect a ghost story as you can get.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #8, Kevin’s at #48, and Robert’s at #50)