A gothic mansion, squirreled away from all semblance of humanity, becomes the magnet that attracts a group of four unsuspecting people, who get more than they bargained for over the course of a term to study the world of psychic phenomena. Add to this batter a mixture; ingredients that range from stories of a house born bad, people dying for no explained, apparent reason, ghosts, things that go bump in the night, and you have a recipe for horror that will follow you into your good night and remain embedded or many nights, and perhaps years to come.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) has decided to test the theory that ghosts do, in reality, exist. To prove his speculation, he enlists the services of Theodora (Claire Bloom), a clairvoyant and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), an emotionally fragile individual whose claim to fame was having had a brush with the paranormal some years before. He gains entrance to Hill House, via the verbal declarations of Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), a distant relation who has inherited the mansion. She gives permission, pursuant upon her playboy nephew, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who expects to eventually inherit Hill House, accompanying the others.
Hill House has suffered the trials and tribulations that go hand in hand with the requisite rumblings so often associated with a 'haunted house.' The mysterious deaths of the first two Mrs. Crains, the suicide of a young companion, and the death of Abigail Crain, who spends her entire existence within the confines of its despicable and fouled walls, all lend credence to a whopping tale of who, what, when, where and especially, why.
Director Robert Wise has fashioned a psychological tale of terror that doesn't scream 'I am a horror film!', but rather supports its credentials on the premise that the mind is, and can be, a powerful conductor of emotions, thoughts and ideas that run the gamut of principled escapism as it runs past the rules of orderly comprehension as we know it to be. His superlative use of camera angles, Dutch tilts, editing and lighting are all guaranteed masterstrokes of genius that parlay the equation to make maximum use of a barebones minimum of a budget. He does more than directors of recent vintage could with budgets that would rival those of third world countries.
It is Jan de Bont's remake, The Haunting (1999), that raises my hackles each time I think of what a mess I had to sit through in order to make a comparison study of these two films. The only things that bore even a passing resemblance to the original were the titles, the names of the characters and a charade that was the story of the remake. De Bont is from the, 'throw more at the audience and they'll never notice the holes that run through this production like Swiss cheese' school of thought. To paraphrase Harry S. Truman, 'the buck stopped here' for de Bont, as his overblown production fell into and on top of itself as the laughable piece of manure it was.
Shirley Jackson's story, 'The Haunting of Hill House,' was the basis for this film, and it has been brought to the screen in a very close semblance of itself. Jackson was said to have been quite pleased with the outcome of the film, and well she should have been. While no true explanation as to the reasons for the diabolical happenings that occur at Hill House are disgorged, we are led down an explicit path where roads lead to bumps in the night that come crashing down into the reality of life as we know it, with nary a rhyme or reason for its occurrence.
Julie Harris as Eleanor is a study for a person on the edge of a nervous breakdown and how her insecurities parallel the permanence of ninety years of paranormal excentricities at Hill House. She had served as the companion/nursemaid to her ill mother for eleven years before her death, with no day off and the frustrations and complex issues that go hand in hand with being thrust into a situation not of her choosing. When she is offered the life preserver (and what a pun this turns out to be!) being cast by Dr. Markway to become part of his experiment, she grabs it with a fervent desire to live her life as the adventure she has always wanted it to be. More importantly, she will be among people that she envisions as friends who will free her from the cloying demands of her previous life. She yearns for a meaning to her ixistence and with her arrival at Hill House, her wish will be fulfilled in more ways than she ever could have imagined. Harris's portrayal is on the money, and her brittle, thin grasp on the edge of sanity is exquisite in its rendering.
Claire Bloom as the cosmopolitan Theo, knowledgeable in the ways of the world and giving hints that ever so subtly echo a sublime lesbianism dwelling within the story, is a perfect choice. All illusions to a woman in charge of herself are shattered in a scene shared with Harris when a loud, extended banging on walls comes to visit them at the entrance to their bedroom.
Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn are supposed to be the Rocks of Gibralter, stabilizers; the males of the species upon whom the females are to look upon as knights in shining armour who will fend off the spooks in one, two, three fashion. Little do they know that know the rollercoaster ride in store for them all. Their roles are litle more than filler, as it is Bloom and especially Harris, who make this film what it is.
Cinematography by Davis Boulton is eerie, uncanny and downright scary. Even in a quiet moment (and they are few) one finds themselves looking at the background of a scene, expecting something to jump out from a darkened corner and into the half light of a moment lived in the fourth dimension of time and space. The camera angles are all a part of the twisted mentality that wrecks havoc with the portentous evil within the confines of this reel of fim. It was said that at the time of filming The Haunting, that when the cast and crew would return the next morning for another day's work, it was discovered that the film in the cameras had either been exposed or ruined in another fashion, rendering previous day's work unusable. Now, as to if this was a publicity stunt or the 'real McCoy' is open to debate, but let it be said that it made a believer of me!
The Haunting is pulsing with a story within a story that makes you think about what you are seeing. It stays with you long after you have viewed it. Scenes of goreless horror play tricks with our claustrophobic minds as we ween things as we think them to be. There are only a real handfull of films that truly should be credited with the title 'horror film.' The Sixth Sense, The Others, Halloween, The Changling, Night of The Living Dead, Curse of The Cat People, The Bodysnatchers; and the list goes on in a limited capacity. Include The Haunting and you have a serendipitous addition to this roster.
Remember, if you do decide to turn out the lights as you watch this film, be sure to have the switch ready for a quick turn on, a friend to be with you, or a phone to call someone on the 'spur of the moment.' Suffice it to say, you will never be the same again. . .