A G-rated horror movie? Yes, there is indeed such a thing, and it can
actually work, as this 1963 classic from the late Robert Wise proves. If
nothing else, the film deserves credit for hewing so closely to its
Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
THE HAUNTING is the premiere film advocated by those
who argue in favor of “Quiet” horror, along with the cinema of Val
Lewton (THE HAUNTING’S producer/director Robert Wise, FYI, got his start
directing Lewton productions, including CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE
BODY SNATCHER). Those in the opposite camp also like to single out THE
HAUNTING; Clive Barker, told by a journalist that the latter liked this
film, responded “you like movies where nothing happens!” In short, THE
HAUNTING, “quiet” or not, is one of the most controversial horror films
in existence, and that’s to its credit.
This film was unfortunately remade in 1999 by producer
Steven Spielberg and director Jan de Bont, who bastardized Shirley
Jackson’s source novel unmercifully and fell into every trap this
original HAUNTING avoids.
A macabre experiment is devised by Dr. Montague, who
wants to gather several psychically inclined folk inside Hill House, an
apparently haunted abode cursed by decades of murder and madness. Only
three people respond to his summons: the seductive lesbian Theodora, the
impish Luke--who stands to inherit Hill House from his aunt--and the
meek Eleanor. The film is told from the point of view of the latter, who
has no friends, having spent a large portion of her short life caring
for her ailing mother. She’s agreed to take part in Dr. Montague’s
experiment to simply do something.
Once ensconced in the cavernous Hill House our intrepid
foursome are bombarded with loud booming sounds and chalk graffiti
reading “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.” This unnerves Eleanor especially, and
she comes to feel that whatever is haunting the house is singling her
out. Yet she actually finds herself coming to like the atmosphere
of Hill House, and desires to become one with it. It seems she’ll get
her wish upon driving off one night and finding that her actions may not
be her own…
Robert Wise was a fine, workmanlike director who
sometimes rose beyond that level. This was one such occasion.
Wise had an evident talent for horror, learned no doubt
from working for Val Lewton. The visuals have a rich, expressionistic
sheen, and the black-and-white widescreen compositions, lensed more
often than not in low angle wide shots, would seem to be inspired by
another of Robert Wise’s mentors: Orson Welles (for whom Wise edited
CITIZEN KANE). The production design is equally impressive, with a
baroque and imposing central location, created on a studio lot with
exteriors shot at the sight of an actual English manor, that appears to
have sprung directly from the pages of Shirley Jackson’s novel.
Yet contrary to what many of the film’s admirers might
have you believe, it isn’t perfect. Quite a few hokey early 1960s
conventions are unfortunately on display: overemphatic music, echoey
voice-overs and a superfluous
PSYCHO-esque final summation to fill in
the narrative for slow viewers.
Of the performers, it’s the leading ladies who make the
greatest impression, with Julie Harris as Eleanor essaying a marvelous
nerdette and Claire Bloom quite alluring as the sexually ambiguous
Theodora. As for the guys--specifically the refined Richard Johnson as
the pious Dr. Montague and teen idol Russ Tamblyn as Luke--they exist as
essentially window dressing.
The film hews quite closely to the events of Shirley
Jackson’s novel (although all the outdoor sequences have been excised),
down to the bleak and uncompromising ending. This makes for a scare fest
of uncommon grace and sophistication, yet Wise adds something the novel
didn’t have: a sense of fun. It’s an imminently watchable and
entertaining film, and it accomplishes those things, unbelievably
enough, without a single onscreen ghost or creature. You may not agree
with Robert Wise’s ultra low-key approach, but it works.
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding
(Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson)
Cinematography: Davis Boulton
Editing: Ernest Walter
Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Fay
Compton, Rosalie Crutchley, Lois Maxwell, Valentine Dyall