classic film: the haunting

Yesterday, as it was pouring rain outside, I watched the classic 1963 ghost story, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. This film scared the fricking hell out of me the first time I saw it. Now I’ve watched it so many times that I see other aspects of the film, beyond the scary bits.

It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t rely on blatant ghosties to give you the chills. I recently saw The Woman in Black  starring Daniel Radcliffe, and while I loved the wonderful atmospheric aspects of the film, the frequency and in-your-face traipsing about of the ghosts had me slouched down in overkill two thirds of the way through. The Haunting isn’t like that. We don’t see ghosts. We hear sounds – strange, muffled voices and cries of laughter, and we see how the characters react to their own fears. In my opinion, it’s vastly scarier than what passes for frights in modern films.

You wouldn’t think woodwork could be frightening: let me tell you – it is. Woodwork that seems to stare at you, is seemingly the source of those muffled voices and cries, knockings, scratching, scuffling noises, echoes of heavy pounding against the stone walls….

Julie Harris plays the emotionally fragile and troubled Eleanor Lance, Claire Bloom is the self assured and mod Theo (fashions by Mary Quant!); Richard Johnson is John Markway, professor of psychic phenomena and Russ Tamblyn rounds it out as the cocky, carefree college grad who will inherit Hill House, the house that was “born bad” according to Markway, who has brought Theo and Eleanor to the house in hope of stimulating the ghostly forces. Each has been involved with the paranormal – Theo has ESP, and Eleanor’s childhood home was showered by a hail of stones for several days. Something she denies ever happened.

Eleanor is the one the forces in the house choose to center upon, of course. Her self doubts, fragility of character and sheltered background make her an easy target for the strong and active forces. The question is, how much is truly caused by external forces, and how much is a product of Eleanor’s own psychological deterioration?

The movie is based on the novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”  by Shirley Jackson. I saw the film before I read the book and there are some slight variations, but all in all the atmosphere and pacing are the same. The house used in the movie is a glorious gothicky Victorian nightmare, huge and rambling and at times as unnavigable as a funhouse. This is a great film for a rainy day.

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