Robert Wise | The Haunting (1963)

The total effect is to create a general sense of confusion and unease, even before the first ghostly elements make their presence known.

There’s nothing I like better than a good psychological horror film, particularly if it’s shot in black and white and set in a spooky old house. I’m not the only one: In fact, there are so many films of this type, and they share so many conventions, that you could make a case for “old house films” being a significant subcategory within the horror genre. One of the best of this type is The Haunting, a 1963 film adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson and directed by Robert Wise. (The less said of the 1999 abomination of the same name, the better.)

The set-up is classic: Four strangers come together to investigate paranormal occurrences within Hill House, chosen because it has been the site of several suspicious deaths (the history of the house is economically sketched out in the first few minutes). They’ve been invited by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist who selected them for their presumed psychic abilities, and their job is to live in the house and take notes on their experiences, in the hopes of collecting evidence to support his belief that the supernatural really exists. Also present is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a nonbeliever who is in line to inherit the house and is there to keep an eye on things.

Johnson and Tamblyn are both excellent, but The Haunting is carried by the performances of Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, playing respectively Eleanor Lance and Theodora (like all the best people, she uses only one name). Both have demonstrated psychic abilities in the past (that’s why Markway invited them) but in every other way they are studies in contrast. Eleanor has light hair, Theodora dark; Eleanor is shy and uncertain, Theodora radiates confidence; Eleanor denies her psychic abilities, Theodora embraces hers. Much of Theodora’s backstory omitted in the screenplay (in the novel, we are told explicitly that she is a lesbian; in the film, there are only a few hints in that regard), with more screen time allocated to provide the details of Eleanor’s painful past.

If you’ve ever felt unappreciated and put upon, you can identify with Eleanor, who becomes the central character over the course of the film. She’s spent years caring for her sick mother, in the process missing out on the usual experiences of young adulthood (going out with friends, dating, and holding down a job, among them). Since her mother’s death, she has been living with her married sister’s family (which includes one of the brattiest kids in the history of the movies), sleeping on the couch and having no space or life to call her own.

The invitation to participate in Markway’s experiment is her chance to escape, so Eleanor puts all her worldly possessions into a single cardboard box and “borrows” her sister’s car to drive to Hill House. She seems to be a nice person under her dowdy exterior, and you hope the Hill House experience will be the catalyst that allows her to break free of her family and develop her own life (which would make The Haunting a coming-of-age story), but there are signs early on that things might go in quite a different direction. For one thing, Eleanor hasn’t put much thought into what she will do when Markway’s project is over (beyond non-plans like driving on and on until the car tires are worn down to nothing).

She is also clearly expecting too much from the experience (it’s supposed to make up for everything she has missed in her life so far). Desperation seldom fosters good choices, and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Haunting is the multiple interpretations available for many events, which might be supernatural, or might be the product of a disturbed mind or distorted perceptions.

The Haunting bears evidence to the lessons Wise learned while directing his first film, The Curse of the Cat People (1944); that film was produced by Val Lewton, a master of creating suspense through suggestion and on practically no budget. Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton use a number of visual techniques to make things appear not quite normal within this film, among them infrared photography for exteriors of the house, a wide-angle lens to create distortion in many interior shots, and unusual camera angles and movements to keep the viewer off balance. The interior sets, designed by Elliot Scott, create a believably creepy, neglected old house, full of anthropomorphic wallpaper and scary statues, faces on doorknobs and musty old books (one, given to the daughter of the house when she was a small child, describes the torments of hell in graphic detail).

We also learn the house was designed by the original owner to be confusing, with angles that aren’t true and odd architectural elements where you least expect them, so once again a variety of interpretations are available when things don’t seem to be proceeding normally. Add in the garden-variety decay you might find in any old house that hasn’t been lived in for some time—dust everywhere, creaky floors, rotting staircases—and the total effect is to create a general sense of confusion and unease, even before the first ghostly elements make their presence known.

Lots of spooky things happen in The Haunting, but the explanation for those events is left ambiguous. While Jackson was clear that the supernatural forces were at work in the world of her novel, Wise chooses instead to maintain a tricky balance between accepting a commonsense, psychological explanation for what we see, and going all-in on the side of the supernatural. After all, old houses can make strange noises (“subterranean waters” is a popular rationalist explanation) and cast scary shadows, and if you’re expecting to find ghosts, you can easily interpret ambiguous stimuli to confirm your expectations. As in the best Val Lewton films, The Haunting leaves open the possibility of a nonsupernatural explanation for much, if not all, of what goes on, so viewers can decide for themselves what is real and what is the product of the characters’ minds.

Although set in New England, The Haunting was shot in old England. The exteriors of Hill House were shot at the neo-Gothic mansion Ettington Park in Warwickshire, now a hotel, while the interiors were shot at the MGM-British Studios in Hertfordshire. Although there are a few anomalies as a result of the shooting location not being the fictional setting (a “to let” rather than “for rent” sign on Eleanor’s drive to Hill House), one advantage of shooting in England is the availability of wonderful actors to play even the smallest roles.

Notable among these are the formidable Fay Compton, who plays Hill House’s current owner (it’s great fun watching Markway pull out all the stops to charm her into allowing him to rent the house), and Lois Maxwell (“Miss Moneypenny” in countless Bond films), who plays Markway’s nonbelieving wife. Even Hill House’s caretakers are vivid, menacing characters, thanks to the skills of veteran actors Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall, who create strong impressions despite having only a few minutes of screen time between them. | Sarah Boslaugh

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