Spoiler Warning: This review does contain references to the final scene.
Borley Rectory, Epworth Parsonage, Glamis Castle……. names that will be familiar to students of British haunted houses. Film buffs could also volunteer Ettingham Park as an addition to a lengthy list. This imposing structure – now a hotel – features in Robert Wise’s take on Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, The Haunting Of Hill House.
Richard Johnson fills the role of Dr. Markway; a psychic investigator who views Hill House as “The key to another world”, and assembles a team of assistants who may stimulate the house. Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theo (Claire Bloom) and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) accomplish that little task in spades although their collective experience is hardly steeped in the supernatural: Theo has powers of ESP, Eleanor may have experienced (or caused) poltergeist phenomena as a young girl and Luke is a ‘doubting Thomas’ who only accepts the spirits found in bars and clubs.
The history of their temporary (?) new home is a ghost-hunters delight: a 90 year-old New England abode, built by a man named Hugh Craine and host to scandal, murder and insanity. Before long, the history of this undesirable residence appears to cast its shadow over the land of the living: thunderous bangings, unearthly cries and whispers, footsteps in empty corridors, doors that bend inwards and a desperate message scrawled in chalk on the wall (“Help Eleanor come home”). There’s enough material here for a score of psychic conferences…… or is there?
Eleanor’s precarious state of mind (fuelled by guilt over her mother’s recent death) and Theo’s jealousy regarding the attraction between Markway and her own intended provide a cocktail of emotions which trigger telekinesis and group hallucinations. Imaginations run riot here, generating enough electricity to power a small town, never mind a creaky old house where the deaths of previous occupants lie heavy in the air, and on the mind.
The cast all run with Nelson Giddings’ screenplay, confirming that Robert Wise chose well: Bloom is terrific as “one of nature’s mistakes”, shamelessly pursuing Eleanor while injecting just the right levels of icy calm and near-hysteria while Lance slides further and further towards self-destruction. Johnson and Tamblyn – initially poles apart in attitudes and beliefs – gain in stature with each viewing; Tamblyn may seem to be overshadowed by the stately Johnson but he does get one of the best lines in the film (and earns it) and there’s a marvellous moment when he quite literally ‘bottles it’ towards the end of the film. Watch out too for Lois Maxwell as Markway’s wife, who could be excused for wondering just what James Bond would have made of it all.
Maybe he would simply have run out screaming, because the house had enough tricks up its sleeve to scare even the hardiest of souls. Was it really haunted?
Probably not, though I feel things had certainly changed by the end when Eleanor Lance deliberately drove her car into a tree, and passed from this life to the next. I can just picture her walking the corridors of Hill House, only to find it completely devoid of spirits.
Alone again, naturally.
Warner Brothers’ Region 2 DVD offers a 2.40:1 widescreen rendering, and is currently the best way to experience this film outside of any isolated theatrical screenings. Picture quality, in lieu of a complete restoration, is fairly sharp and the widescreen format really does open things up, giving us a far greater appreciation of the set design and cinemaphotography. Ardent fans will be delighted by the inclusion of an audio commentary track, featuring Wise, Giddings, Johnson, Tamblyn and, briefly, Bloom and Harris. Recorded separately, these six key figures provide plenty of anecdotes and observations: Harris revealing he worked on The Haunting by day and appeared in The Devils stageplay in the evenings, and generally meditating on his approach to acting (and how he turned his back on the chance to play James Bond before Connery got the role, while Tamblyn explains why he initially turned down the role of Luke and relates a ghostly experience that occurred one evening on the set.
Giddings and Wise also make for good company, agreeing their film has not dated, clearly proud that audiences are still keeping Hill House alive.
Perfect viewing for a cold winter’s evening. Just make sure your doors stay sensibly shut.