“No one will come in the night… in the dark!”
There’s nothing like a good haunted house movie, and 1963’s THE HAUNTING is one of the best ever. Producer/director Robert Wise cut his filmic teeth on Val Lewton shockers like THE BODY SNATCHER and noirs such as BORN TO KILL before graduating to mainstream movies like I WANT TO LIVE! and WEST SIDE STORY. In THE HAUNTING he returns to his dark roots to create a nightmarish vision of Shirley Jackson’s eerie novel The Haunting of Hill House.
“Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide” have plagued Hill House for close to 100 years. The cursed Crain family were its original inhabitants, designed by eccentric Hugh Crain. The house is a darkly foreboding Gothic structure with oddly tilted angles both inside and out. Dr. John Markham, a paranormal investigator, visits proper Bostonian matron Mrs. Sanderson, the house’s current owner, asking to take a lease on Hill House to conduct his research. She consents but only if her nephew Luke, a callow young slacker, accompanies him.
Markham puts together a team that includes Theodora (“Just Theodora.”), a beautiful bohemian with ESP, and Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a fragile recluse who’s had ghostly experiences in the past. Markham believes Hill House is a gateway to the supernatural, though skeptical Luke is only interested in what the house will bring on the market. It’s implied (though not overtly stated, this being 1963) Theodora is a lesbian or bisexual with an attraction to Nell. This subplot is well handled by Wise, with Nell becoming more attracted to Markham as the film goes on, much to Theodora’s annoyance.
Nell and Theo are the first to experience supernatural activity, hearing a constant pounding, groans, heavy breathing, and feeling a terrible coldness. Markham and Luke return from chasing what they assume was “a dog” when they encounter the frightened girls. The quartet goes downstairs, and all doubts are erased: a message is written on the wall saying, “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”.
The following day a ‘cold spot’ is discovered in front of the nursery, where Abigail Crain lived from birth to death. Nell is beginning to doubt her sanity, and relying more and more on Markham. Her hopes are dashed when the doctor’s wife Grace arrives with news that reporters are asking about what he’s doing at Hill House. Grace insists on staying with them, and in the nursery to boot, despite her husbands protestations. That night, they hear the disembodied noises creeping closer and closer to the nursery. Nell runs into the room only to find Grace has vanished.
Nell is becoming more unstable with each passing minute. We see her alone in front of the grotesque statuary dancing with (what she believes is) the ghost of Hugh Crain. Seeming to be possessed by the house itself, she climbs the rickety spiral staircase where a suicide once took place. Markham goes up to try to save her, but not before Nell is horrified when Grace pops out from a trapdoor above her. Nell’s mental state convinces Markham to send her away from Hill House, but she insists she belongs there. “I’m the one it really wants, can’t you feel it?”, she tells the doctor. “It’s alive, watching, waiting… waiting for me”. She reluctantly drives away from the house- but never leaves, in a truly frightening ending I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it.
Julie Harris (Nell) was one of the most acclaimed actresses of the 20th Century, winner of five Tony Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, the Kennedy Center Honor, and Oscar-nominated for MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. Her Nell has a tenuous relationship with reality at best, as we find out through her interior monologues. Harris has a broken quality to her that makes the audience care despite her seeming descent into madness. She can also be seen in the films EAST OF EDEN with James Dean, I AM A CAMERA (which was later turned into the musical CABARET), Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR.
Clair Bloom (Theo) is also outstanding in a tricky role for the era. Dressed in pop designer Mary Quant’s outfits to emphasize her bohemian status, Bloom shows great restraint in creating a portrait of a woman outside the mainstream. When Nell calls Theo “one of nature’s mistakes”, she’s more than likely talking about her sexuality rather than her clairvoyant powers. Bloom was another stage star, who made her film debut in Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT. Other movie roles include LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Laurence Olivier’s RICHARD III, and Ray Bradbury’s THE ILLUSTRATED MAN with then-husband Rod Steiger. More recently she appeared in THE KING’S ENGLISH; the 85-year-old actress will be featured in the upcoming MAX ROSE, co-starring with screen legend Jerry Lewis.
Richard Johnson (Markham) once turned down the role of 007 James Bond. THE HAUNTING is perhaps his best known film role, but genre fans will recognize him from THE MONSTER CLUB and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE. Russ Tamblyn (Luke) was a former child actor who starred in Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY. He later popped up in the cult TV series TWIN PEAKS. Lois Maxwell, 007’s Miss Moneypenny, plays Markham’s wife Grace. Behind the cameras, DP Davis Boulton’s shadowplay is reminiscent of Wise’s early RKO work, editor Ernest Walter puts things together smoothly, Humphrey Searle’s score is appropriately eerie, and Tom Howard’s special effects are spot on. Special note must be made to the sound department, again evoking the Val Lewton films, down to the overlapping dialog. THE HAUNTING was remade in 1999, and despite technological advances was a critical and box office dud. Just goes to show when it comes to haunted houses, the old ways are always best, especially when they’re in the hands of a master craftsman like Robert Wise. Those of you who haven’t seen this classic need to put it on your Halloween watch list this season. You won’t be disappointed… but I guarantee you WILL be frightened!