THE HAUNTING (1963), Robert Wise’s classic ghost story movie based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, is a film that I could never get into as a kid, as I was into monster movies and horror films that were much more in-your-face than the type of subtle scares found here.
But I recently caught up with this horror classic the other day on DVD and you know what? I’m still not nuts about it.
Which puts me in the minority because I know a lot of folks who swear by this movie and consider it one of the best ghost story movies ever made. Sadly, I disagree.
I actually enjoyed Shirley Jackson’s novel better than the movie, even though truth be told there really aren’t a whole lot of differences between the book and the movie, as the film remained mostly faithful to the book. However, one major difference between the two is the book makes the case that it’s the house itself that is haunted, that it’s the house itself that is evil, and it actually treats the house as a major character in the story. The movie doesn’t do this.
The film focuses on the psychological make-up of the main character, Eleanor, suggesting that the ghostly activities inside the house are perhaps only happening inside Eleanor’s head, since she’s the only one who the house seems to affect.
THE HAUNTING has a neat beginning, as a voice-over explains the history of Hill House, chronicling the tragic events which took place there over the years. The film then jumps to present day where Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) plans to investigate the house to find out whether or not it’s truly haunted.
Markway assembles a team to stay in the house with him. This team consists of a woman, Eleanor (Julie Harris), chosen in spite of her emotional instability because she once had a spiritual encounter, Theo (Claire Bloom) a woman with psychic abilities, and a young man, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit the house. Sanderson is there to protect his investment.
On cue, strange things begin to happen, most of them to Eleanor, and she soon believes the house wants her to stay there. Eleanor is happy inside Hill House, as it provides her with an escape from her prior life, where she had spent years caring for her sick elderly mother. After her mother passed away, Eleanor lived with her sister, her sister’s husband, and their young daughter, but things were stressful there, because Eleanor felt angry that the brunt of caring for their sick mother fell completely on her.
Eleanor also develops feelings for Dr. Markway, even though he’s married. When Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) arrives at Hill House, Eleanor sees her as a threat, and she reacts badly when Markway suggests that she leave Hill House, concerned that things at the house have grown too intense for her, and that she’s close to suffering a nervous breakdown.
But Eleanor does not want to leave Hill House. Ever.
In terms of quiet horror, THE HAUNTING works well. It does possess an eerie quality that can be somewhat unnerving when watching it alone at night, even if the scares aren’t all that intense. There’s a particular moment, for example, where Eleanor thinks she’s holding Theo’s hand, but she then sees Theo on the other side of the room, which begs the question: whose hand has she holding? Creepy, but not scary.
Robert Wise’s direction is tight and solid, and technically, the film is enjoyable to watch. There are a lot of creepy things going on inside the house, things like characters scaring themselves by seeing their reflection in a mirror, doors that close by themselves, and a host of other things. I was certainly intrigued by all I saw, but I was rarely frightened.
It’s a case where, for me, the movie didn’t go for the jugular enough. It’s definitely a case of style over substance.
I definitely prefer some of Wise’s other films over this one, films like THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). And although it’s not one of my personal favorites, Wise did direct the family classic THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). One thing is for sure: Wise certainly enjoyed an eclectic career.
The screenplay by Nelson Gidding is okay but it’s a difficult one to warm up to. The characters tend to speak peripherally, talking around things rather than getting to the heart of the matter, and while they’re somewhat interesting, they’re not all that likeable. And in terms of creepiness and getting under one’s skin, it’s not as effective as Jackson’s novel.
Gidding has also written some other suspect screenplays, including THE HINDENBURG (1975) and BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979).
The cast is fine although it didn’t wow me. Julie Harris is okay as Eleanor, but she grows increasingly annoying as the movie goes on, and I have to admit I didn’t really care what happened to her.
I thought Richard Johnson made a likeable Dr. Markway, and I actually wished the movie had been more about him. Markway is very authoritative in the movie, although, ultimately, he proves to be an ineffective investigator. I also found Claire Bloom irritating as Theo, although I did enjoy Russ Tamblyn’s performance as the laid back Luke Sanderson.
And Lois Maxwell, James Bond’s MoneyPenney herself, is on hand as Markway’s wife Grace, and she’s very good in the few scenes she’s in.
THE HAUNTING is considered a classic of the genre, but I just have never been able to get into it. Its story is heightened by some neat visuals by director Wise, and it’s got decent acting, but the script never grabbed me, either with its story or its characters.
Simply put, I wasn’t haunted by THE HAUNTING.