Movie Review: The Haunting (1963)

the haunting
Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

The horror times continue with a film several people have recommended to me, and is honestly the scariest I’ve seen in a while. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting unravels the mysteries of Hill House, an old mansion where several inhabitants died gruesome or unexpected deaths. It’s remained empty for years but a paranormal psychologist and researcher (Richard Johnson) who is out to prove the existence of ghosts enlists a small group to investigate the mansion’s possible otherworldly properties. Theodora (Claire Bloom) is a snarky psychic, Eleanor (Julie Harris) is a nervous sensitive, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) stands to inherit the house and wants to catalog his future wealth. Eleanor immediately perceives a monstrous presence there, a violent intention that seems aimed at her specifically. Fearful of being left alone, she oscillates between terror at the ghostly forces threatening her and comfort that the house seems to want her there. The others try to pry her away from its supernatural grip but she doesn’t want to let go.

Relying almost completely on disembodied sound and distorted camerawork for its scares, The Haunting is an eerie, visceral experience. Every shot is precise, every noise is a bad omen. Though its opening exposition is narrated by Professor Markway, the main events of the film are shown from Eleanor’s point of view and her inner thoughts are often voiced. She is often anxious and unsure, longing to be accepted in a group- any group- and begin a life away from her oppressive sister and brother-in-law, who serve as constant reminders of Eleanor’s recently deceased mother. The specter of Eleanor’s mother presides over much of the film along with the actual ghosts, as the protagonist sifts through her own guilty conscience and darker inclinations. By bringing her emotional baggage to a creepy psychological cesspool like Hill House, Eleanor invites a targeted wave of terror, and the audience becomes completely wrapped up in her internalized struggle with the house’s presence. The angry, faraway voices, the persistent thumping, the unwieldy doors, the writing on the walls, the invisible icy hand- these devices are well-employed and remarkably effective, proving that even with limited special effects a film can be truly terrifying. I’m getting chills just thinking about “Whose hand was I holding?!” Yeesh.

While memorable for its horrific moments and uncanny atmosphere, The Haunting is grounded in its character exploration. Honestly, I would probably find the four central figures insufferable in real life, but their interactions and narrative contributions are compelling, plus the actors are great. Richard Johnson’s Dr Markway is the quintessential mansplainer, but his overconfidence and condescension are eventually overtaken by Eleanor’s conviction and the pull of the house. Russ Tamblyn is adorable and cheeky as Luke, a nonbeliever who gradually comes to see that something is not right in his family estate. Julie Harris is a bit annoying in the lead, but really it’s because Eleanor as a character is pretty annoying, as well as weird and moody and fretful and needy. She’s an interesting case and while I didn’t need quite so much of her ever-present inner monologue I was always curious about what she’d do next, and she was a good person to center the story around (as I assume the book does). My favorite was Claire Bloom as Theo, an unambiguous lesbian who pursues a relationship with Eleanor that mixes “sisterly” friendship and derisive judgments, with a frankly sexual undercurrent. Her sexuality is never villainized, however, and she remains a sympathetic player as her own fears are revealed through the house’s nightly attacks, and her care for Eleanor is shown to be genuine.

Complicated in its characters and narrative but perfectly understated in its horror elements, The Haunting is a deeply affecting, downright scary film that hides as much as it reveals, and thus its mystery is never completely solved. This sense of unfinished business makes its eerie mood even more pronounced, and left me feeling satisfied but (appropriately) uneasy.


Pair This Movie With: Some of the more surreal visuals and skewed camera angles made me think of Seconds, another psychological horror-thriller but with a very different theme. Or you could do a quadruple feature inspired by Andreas’s senior thesis about gender and the “monstrous hero” in horror: Cat People, The Haunting, Carrie, and May.

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