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“The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
– Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton)
I wanted to use this post to celebrate Robert Wise’s black and white classic, but also to take the time to tear down some of the sad successors that have come in its wake (for instance, the ill-conceived, obnoxious, loud, and plain silly 1999 remake). Horror is tricky and haunted house movies are trickier still, mostly owing to the fact that many filmmakers have to get over the hurdle of pacing the movie around the “why” of the movie’s potential victims sticking around when confronted with supernatural menace.
In addition to a steady, unsettling build-up that overcomes this particular hurdle, The Haunting is also a masterpiece of sound design and minimal effects work which has been hard to match in the 50 years since it was made.
I suppose I want to use this as not only a recommendation of The Haunting but an overall look at horror set in spooky places, which has almost exclusively replaced establishing mood with jump scares, loud noises for effective sound design, and in some cases, as much CG as can be crammed onto the screen at one time.
To the first point, part of what makes the doomed expedition into the purportedly cursed Hill House so effective is how explainable the phenomena are in the sprawling mansion… until they’re not. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), sly psychic Theo (Claire Bloom), potential inheritor Luke (Russ Tamblyn), and mousy Nell (Julie Harris) get confounded by the odd geometry of the house, startled by the sudden noises, and generally bewildered by the feeling that something is watching them.
It’s only later when they become separated, when the sheltered and emotionally fragile Nell begins to lose her nerve, that the movie tilts from slow-burn dread to all-out horror with the shock of a terrified face capping off the entire experience. The always hard to quantify dread sets in from Dr. Markway’s opening monologue which explains the tragic history of the house–a series of accidents which takes at least three lives and leaves the last blood inheritor a terrified, sad specter who lives out her life and dies in her childhood nursery. Director Robert Wise trains our attention on the suffering at the heart of the story, makes us feel for the characters, and then puts them through the wringer. Theo’s characterization as a 60s-in-film predatory lesbian aside, she’s still a smart, charismatic presence, and we want poor, broken Nell to come out of this experience stronger after spending a life taking care of her infirm mother.
Now everything done here is without the benefit of really much in the way of optical effects, or constant violin shrieks, or gore to get the scares across. Some of those elements, when deployed strategically, have made for some terrific horror movies. The Others is a recent horror movie which shares The Haunting’s DNA in terms of implying more than is actually there to good effect while as a counterpoint, the tame thrillride of the the Amityville remake is pretty much everything that’s wrong with bad haunted house horror (poorly-fleshed out characters, an overabundance of effects noise on the screen). I guess the secret here is that the best haunted house movies are often about building suspense by leaving a lot to the imagination–I’ll cheat here and say that The Blair Witch Project is another success on this front, making more out of sounds in the night than any overt effects inasmuch as both it and The Haunting are about “haunted” or cursed spaces wreaking havoc on their protagonists.
Anyway, if you want to experience The Haunting yourself, the 2003 DVD appears to be out of print, but it is available on a four-movie disc with Todd Browning’s Freaks, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and House of Wax which isn’t a bad deal (although I’m wondering what the presentation is like). It’s also streaming for free on Amazon Prime if you have that service. I’m hoping though, that someone at Warner Home Video will get it into their head in the next year to release a shiny Blu-ray disc to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary.