September 18, 1963
Nelson Gidding and Shirley Jackson
Julie Harris as Eleanor
Claire Bloom as Theodora
Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway
The history of Hill House is gruesome and cruel. Misfortune encountered by successive occupants encouraged the locals to mark it as ‘haunted’. Although a small staff sustains it during the day, no one goes near the estate at night. Yet, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) and a pair of psychics intend to spend weeks in the house conducting experiments. He spent many years searching for the ideal location and believes Hill House will allow him to prove the existence of supernatural phenomena. Yet one of his psychics, Eleanor (Julie Harris), becomes affected by nefarious thoughts that are either the result of her own psychosis, or manipulating spirits.
The Haunting is the classic haunted house flick. Although not the first, it is the one that most baby boomers remember from their formative years. Hill House creeps its visitors with forces that turn spots ice cold, poltergeists that loudly clang about the house and apparitions that take human form. It also has enough corridors to frustrate anyone attempting to navigate them. Complementing these frightful features are the motives of the guests, all of which are suspect. The aggregate effect would drive anyone insane and Eleanor becomes the first candidate.
The Haunting blends the effects of a traditional ghost story with old-time psychological horror. The audience hears Eleanor’s thoughts and follows her on the road to madness. Although the proximate cause appears to be the house, her psychology also plays an integral role and the boundary between the two influences disappears.
Eleanor is the story and The Haunting is a story-driven suspense film. Although Julie Harris plays the role brilliantly, in several instances her streaming thoughts detract from the action to the point of tedium. Yet the suspense mostly holds throughout and the outcome remains uncertain. (Although predictable to some, if not most, it was a daring choice for the time.)
Although Julie Harris’s acting is extraordinary, the remainder of the cast delivers performances typical for the time – sticking to one-dimensional character assignments. The setting is appropriate – exactly what the mind might conjure when thinking of a haunted house. The mood may be unsettling, but the music is unoriginal, overplayed and hinders attempts to frighten the audience.
The Haunting is a classic and worth a watch, but it is also for those who don’t like to be afraid. The music and thought stream detract from the creepy theme to the point that it ceases to be creepy. There are no scary images (a brief flash of a bloody face, but nothing vivid). There are no scares, although there is a decent attempt at one driven purely by camera angles. Some in audiences of the 1960s probably jumped out of their seats (a pun that you will get if you watch), but no horror freak, or even a beginner would.
Final warning: PG horror only. The Haunting has nothing scary, but a classic that any freak should watch, at least once.