- Director: Robert Wise
- Writers: Nelson Gidding, based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Rosalie Crutchley, Valentine Dyall, and Lois Maxwell
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Welcome to Horrorfest ‘21, ten straight days of horror movies here at Movie Valhalla. After our combined “Horror and Politics Virtual Film Festival” over Halloween and the election last year, I wanted to try more variety this year, along with some fun classics. Remember, you can still vote for our Halloween movie from among several “New Classics” from the 1990s.
Our opening movie is The Haunting, which has a reputation as perhaps the type specimen of the haunted house movie. Its reputation is so far-reaching that both Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are on record saying they think it’s the “scariest movie ever made.” Which… no it isn’t, sorry guys. Which isn’t to say that I’m immune to its charms. You should know going in, however, that this is a ghost story where we never see any ghosts, a supernatural movie with no confirmed present of the supernatural whatsoever.
In her review back in 1963, the great Pauline Kael wrote about a couple in the theater with her that argued in the middle of the movie. The guy wanted to leave, but the girl argued that “something has to happen soon.” “They were both disappointed,” she wrote, but also gave the movie an overall positive review. I watched it with my wife, the horror fan, and I was left thinking I’d made the wrong choice out of the older horror movies we’re featuring this year. Both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and La Maschera del Demonio are much more “exciting” in the traditional sense. The Haunting, meanwhile, gets an awful lot of mileage out of disembodied banging noises coming from off-screen.
The Haunting seems to get its general take on the material from director Robert Wise, who read Shirley Jackson’s novel about ghosts and decided it was less about the supernatural and more about a woman losing her mind. Wise had a very successful and eclectic career, which included directing The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and the first Star Trek movie. The Haunting was sort of his “one for me” after West Side Story’s “one for them,” shot mostly on location at a very atmospheric, spooky looking manor in the English countryside (the movie is set in America, but most of the cast and crew were British). A lot of viewers have come away saying the mansion is the biggest star of the movie, and they’re not wrong. After an opening montage giving us some backstory, we’re back to the house in about ten minutes, and spend the rest of the movie there. As that opening narration intones ominously, “Whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The somewhat sparse story of this movie is about four people conducting a scientific study in the supposedly haunted “Hill House,” intended to prove the existence of ghosts or not. I guess? The main character is Nell, played by Julie Harris, who has spent most of her life shut in, caring for her sick, apparently awful mother, but also I guess had an experience with a poltergeist one time. She is brought in by Professor Markway (Richard Johnson) for his “experiment,” along with the psychic Theo (short for Theodora) (played by Claire Bloom) and the caddish Luke (Russ Tamblyn, of West Side Story fame), who is set to inherit the house. They all have various encounters involving weird noises, cold winds, doors that are suddenly open that they know were closed, etc. Soon, it seems that there is some sort of connection between Nell and the house, or maybe it’s just that she’s losing her mind? Other interesting cast members include Lois Maxwell as the Professor’s ill-fated wife, best known for playing Miss Moneypenny in several of the early James Bond movies, and Valentine Dyall (as the husband of the creepy couple acting as caretakers of Hill House). Dyall is probably best known today as the recurring villain “the Black Guardian” on classic Doctor Who.
About five minutes into the movie, my wife noted that there sure was a lot of voiceover in this movie. Nell’s thoughts rattle on the soundtrack all the way through, only sort of coherently. It’s the movie attempting to put us into her headspace, which makes everything much more off-kilter. Especially by the later stages of the movie, her mental state is swinging wildly from “I have to get out here!” to “I am home now, I’m never leaving!” Without the voiceover, there would be far less suspense in the movie, it would just be Julie Harris looking frightened. And that suspense is basically the whole movie. I am not a fan of that movie trick where we’re waiting, waiting, waiting, and then there’s a “jump scare.” The Haunting is basically that without the jump scares. It’s just suspense, without actually giving you the answers.
One of the more written about aspects of The Haunting these days is the character of Theo, who in both the book and the movie is implied to be a lesbian, far more so than you usually saw in mainstream movies in 1963 (especially in Britain, where homosexuality wouldn’t even be legalized for four more years). That is, if you know what clues to look at, though nobody ever actually says it out loud. The fact that Theo has a man’s name is not a coincidence, nor is the way she says that she isn’t married, with almost a smile, or, especially, the way, when the Professor asks everyone what they’re most scared of, she shoots a sidelong glance at Nell and says that she’s scared of “knowing what I really want.” Shot, but cut out of the movie, was an early scene where Theo finds an apparent break-up message written in lipstick on her bathroom mirror and then yells out her window at a woman walking away. At the time, the idea may have been that there was something wrong with Theo, adding to the general air of the “unnatural” around everything.
This also lends an extra layer to perhaps the most memorable scene of both the movie and the book, where that infernal banging returns in the night and Nell grips Theo’s hand in fear. After several seconds, the banging ends, and Nell switches on the light… and realizes that Theo was across the room in her own bed the whole time. “Whose hand was I holding?!?” Nell wails. Dun dun DUUUUUUN. Most modern movies would eventually feel compelled to explain this, but this one never does.
The movie and its source material have inspired a long series of remakes, adaptations, and other things. Fans of the recent Netflix limited series The Haunting of Hill House will likely recognize many random elements without really knowing what the connection is. Both movies are ostensibly an adaptation of the same novel but the series mostly mostly kept the concept of a haunted house and some character names, including a lesbian named “Theo.” If you’re interested, I would really recommend that series (there’s an episode about the “Broke-Neck Lady” that is one of the most freakout-worthy pieces of television I’ve ever seen) but it’s not really the same thing. There was also a fairly high profile 1990s remake of this movie with a cast that included Liam Neeson as the Professor, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo, and, most randomly, Owen Wilson in the Luke role. It did not get good reviews. Stephen King can also apparently be counted among the fans of The Haunting, attempting to interest Spielberg in his own version. This was eventually turned into the mini-series Rose Red, which again bears only a cursory resemblance to The Haunting.
I think the appeal of The Haunting is that it is pared down nearly to its essentials. It is interested in the atmosphere and the characters existing inside of that atmosphere, and that’s about it. Various creepy things happen, but there is never a satisfactory explanation for basically any of it, and the idea that this is all happening inside of Nell’s mind is very much in play (and maybe even what the filmmakers are going for). Yet the movie never actually says that, either, and so we’re left with just this house, the noises, and “whose hand was I holding?”