Saturday, February 7, 2009

Film Review--The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963)
directed by Robert Wise
written by Nelson Gidding
based on the novel by Shirley Jackson
starring Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, Rosalie Crutchley, Valentine Dyall

Based on the novel “Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, this infinitely creepy fright fest combines stellar music, exquisite lighting and shadow effects, and disturbing atmospherics to create a lasting horror film that builds up tension expertly. The film achieves its startling effectiveness by calmly laying out the slow, burning potentiality of a legitimate paranormal experience.

Dr. John Markway (Johnson) is an anthropologist who is keen on discovering proof that the supernatural exists. He rents out a terribly old Gothic mansion dubbed Hill House and invites a trio of experts in the phenomena to join him on his quest. His guests include Eleanor Lance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson and each of them brings various connections with the paranormal to the investigation. Eleanor, who is known as Nell, is a timid and neurotic woman who has spent the past years caring for her ailing mother. After her mother dies she becomes determined to have some time for herself. When the call comes she fights her sister and brother in law with whom she resides being forced to sleep on the couch. She manages to sneak away with the car and drives herself to Hill House. For much of the film Eleanor’s thoughts explain her various states of mind as she attempts to calm her nerves and survive the terrors of the house. Theodora or Theo as she prefers to be called is more grounded although she too succumbs to various frights. Finally, Luke is really only interested in assessing the house because as the nephew of the woman who owns it he is set to inherit it and wants to make sure everything is in proper order.

Throughout the film the house makes its presence felt. There is loud banging at night, an inexplicable cold spot in one of the halls, and a child in the wall who appears to be being abused. Eleanor clutches an invisible hand and there are presences throughout the house that create a genuine sense of discomfort to the residences. The film uses sound and lighting to establish a definite mood of distress that never abates. The audience feels right along with the characters the horror of the house’s ill intent for those who dare to remain within its walls.

The house itself was built 90 years ago by a man named Hugh Crain. It was made with strange, off putting angles and there is not a square in the entire house. This is interesting because queer designs such as this are known to summon up peculiar forces that lend themself to supernatural possession. On the way to the house Crain’s carriage crashes into a tree killing his wife instantly. He is left with his young daughter Abigail who lives in the same nursery room for the rest of her life. She hires a care giver to take care of her in her later years. One night the care giver chooses not to answer the old woman’s rapping on the wall and Abigail promptly dies. Later the care giver hangs herself from the rafters.

The possibility that there is a force beyond our limited consciousness is ably explored in this film. Spirits are given a fair treatment and the film and there is no judgment as to whether or not they actually exist. Indeed, so many freakish things happen that it’s clear that such things are treated as a very real part of what we consider everyday reality. The film brings a solidity to the problem of spirits and the viewer comes away less skeptical than they went in. It most definitely creates a real sense of terrible unease that lasts long after the film has come to a close. Sleeping is difficult as every sound becomes akin to the shuffling feet of some disengaged soul or other. This is the sign of a high quality film that actually manages a definitive impact on the well being of its audience. It’s something that has been lost in our glossed-over, high tech attempts to create scary stories with a similar impact. Too often we are left with predictable, tiring, rehashed mediocrity that fails on every level to initiate actual terror. This film on the other hand is like an impossibly cold and bony hand tapping its fingers down our spine.

There is one incredibly tense scene near the end that is fraught with danger and has nothing to do with the supernatural. Eleanor has finally succumbed to the house and believes that she is forever a part of it. She wanders out into a courtyard and communicates with the giant statues that seem to depict Crain and various descendants. Then she whirls into the library which she previously refused to enter because the smell reminded her of her mother and also was too terribly pungent for her polite sensibilities. In the library she notices the winding staircase that shook earlier when Luke was attempting to walk up it. Eleanor duly climbs the staircase and nearly gets to the top before Markway calls after her to beckon her down. Undeterred she methodically moves up the stairs and makes it to the top. It’s an exceedingly treacherous mission and it creates a great sense of real danger. Markway finally reaches her and she is relieved. It’s basically Eleanor in a nutshell. She’s seeking danger and feels that she has been waiting for it all her life.

The story is Eleanor’s from the beginning. She feels as if nothing has ever happened to her and jumps at the chance to put herself into a situation predicated on unknown aspects. With voice over narration her thoughts are made manifest as she speaks various thoughts of fear, supplication, and earnestness to be brought under the wheel of the churning and diabolical urgency of the house. Early on there is a message written on one of the tapestries that urges for Eleanor to find help making it back home. Indeed, the house seems to be singling Eleanor out and deliberately attempting to frighten her to death. Early on it seems to be working as she is distinctly terrified at every turn. She seems brutalized by whatever is making the strange noises and causing the child to cry. But she pulls through and eventually accepts whatever is trying to get to her. She succumbs to the house’s will and has a noticeable breakthrough that produces a state of calm. She loses her fear and decides she wants to live in the house forever. It’s a terrific revelation because it proves there is a place beyond fear that can be reached by letting down the protective wall that is erected as a barrier to ensure that the Self is not infringed upon.

Theo is a proper lady who resides in the city and is slightly skeptical about the reality of spooks. Still, she does show signs of abject fear on occasion during the banging sessions where it’s impossible to locate a source for the phenomenon. Still, she’s mostly unflappable although its apparent that she still is fraught with a considerable amount of apprehension that will not effectively come off. Her nerves aren’t as frayed as Eleanor’s but she’s still not quite able to say that she is free of strain. She comforts Eleanor and is clearly the stronger of the two.

The performances in this film are all brilliantly rendered. Julie Harris captures all of her character’s intense personality quirks. Eleanor is a bundle of nerves for much of the film and Harris makes her plight both sympathetic and firmly believable. She is truly lost in a confusing mist and struggles to right herself by the end. Harris also manages to give us a woman of great strength who is unaware she possesses it. Clair Bloom’s gait and posture tell everything about the character including her motivations and something of a regal bearing. There is a vitality to Theo that comes across in every scene. Richard Johnson conveys a character who firmly believes in his attempt to solve the great mystery once and for all. He’s strong and vital throughout and has a commanding presence that never fades. Lois Maxwell has a brief turn but she establishes a firm point of view and a remarkably centered position.

Overall, this film is a bona fide ghost story that relies on simple techniques to instill tension that never abates. The characters are warmly forged and expressive in their various relationships with terror and the unexplained. They move the film along effortlessly and there is not a single lag in the entire production. There are moments of fright that are originated out of a basic approach to lighting and sound that creates terrible shadows and sounds that can not be properly placed. The result is a film that generates a coldness that is the signature of spirits as well as a desire to pull the covers over one’s head and try to ignore the ruckus in the walls.

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