The Haunting (1963) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
Director: Robert Wise

“The Dead are not quiet in Hill House”

Even a full 55 years after it’s release, The Haunting remains one of the most effective and truly terrifying ghost stories ever made.

Based on Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting Of Hill House, director Robert Wise’s film is an undoubted masterpiece of mood, atmospherics and complex characterisation that shifts between merely unsettling to flat-out disturbing, all while never once revealing anything to the viewer.

In the mid-19th century, Hugh Crain constructs Hill House for his new wife, who dies in a carriage accident in the grounds as she approaches it for the first time. Over the years, more deaths would occur in the house, such as Crain’s second wife and his grown-up daughter’s nurse companion, who would inherit the place after her charge died herself, after spending her entire life in the house’s nursery.

90 years later, Dr. John Markway arrives to conduct a scientific study of the paranormal activity that reputedly plagues Hill House. To assist him, he’s joined by Eleanor, a survivor of a poltergeist manifestation who has spent her entire adult life caring for her recently deceased mother and Theo, a hip New York psychic, as well as Luke Sanderson, the young heir to the house.

Almost immediately, the group start to suspect that they are not alone, that the legends of Hill House are anything but legends and the house not only is far from empty, but has taken a particular interest in one of the party…

Right from the off, The Haunting is almost unbearably tense. The prologue showing the awful history of the house hits like a hammer, immediately putting the audience on edge, setting up an oppressive feeling of unease that doesn’t let up until the final credits are rolling.

The house itself is as much of a character as any of the cast, beautifully decorated by designer Elliot Scott in the baroque Rococo style popular at the time of its building, meaning that barely an inch isn’t covered in ornate carvings, patterns, ornaments, statues or plants. Not only that, but unusually the sets all have ceilings, compounding the claustrophobic atmosphere.

The dense visual background is enhanced by some dazzling camera trickery from Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton. Strange angles, pans and tracking shots are all created using a distorted Panavision camera, meaning the house constantly feels alive and breathing, with a constant feeling that we are seeing the characters through the eyes of the unknown presences that seem to be lurking in the house.

As the psychologically-fragile Eleanor, Julie Harris gives a remarkable performance, excited to be even temporarily free from her restrictive home life, but immediately affected by the goings-on at the house, at times seduced, at others terrified. Harris carries this all beautifully, bringing the vulnerable persona of Eleanor to life.

Dressed in a succession of hyper-stylish outfits by Mary Quant no less, Theo is a fascinating character, her interest in Eleanor clearly sexual, but like her obvious powers of reading minds, it’s never overtly referenced. Instead it’s allowed to come out naturally as the plot progresses, with Claire Bloom clearly relishing playing such a unique and for the time, ground-breaking character.

Considering just how disturbing The Haunting is, it’s all the more remarkable that so little is shown. Robert Wise clearly was paying attention to his mentor Val Lewton’s ideas on less is more ideas, with never anything more than disembodied voices, banging on walls and a weirdly writhing door the only overt signs of horror, but it’s enough. More than enough, in fact. Make no mistake, The Haunting is a traumatic experience at times.

Is there actually a presence in the house? Or is it all the psychic manifestation of Eleanor’s traumatised psyche? Well, there’s an argument for both and the original script favoured the latter, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that yes, the dead are not quiet at Hill House indeed.

The Haunting isn’t just a classic horror, it’s one of the greatest films ever made in any genre and has lost none of its power to disturb, even now.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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