The Haunting – 1963
Director – Robert Wise
Starring – Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn
The Robert Wise production of The Haunting suffers slightly from the fact that I saw the shitty 1999 remake first, and unfortunately it never really recovers.
Based on the short story by Shirley Jackson, the Haunting is a good example of the 1960’s horror film. It is far enough away from the 50’s to avoid giant monsters, and a cliched premise, but it is still too far from the late 70’s and early 80’s when gore was in vogue. By comparison, it manages a certain legitimacy that movies in either of the other two camps aren’t afforded. The scares are based around tension rather than gross-outs or horrible creatures, which makes the film seem all that much more grown up.
Julie Harris, stars as Eleanor, the troubled, put-upon woman who is perhaps a little sensitive to the paranormal. She, and a few others, are the guest of Dr. Markway, a scientist interested in the spiritial disturbances that have taken place for decades at Hill House, a mess of corridors and rooms with a lonely and bitter past. The presence of these newcomers (two of whom are sensitive to the otherworldly happenings), awakens the angry spirits in the house and causes them to run amok.
While the set up of each version of the film (the original and the remake) are the same up to this point, the remake diverges at this point and as the characters start dying. So, having seen the latter version, I was waiting for the original version to start killing off our main characters. I was waiting for the caretaker and his wife to turn up dead (like in The Others, another movie with a similar plot), once Markway’s wife showed up, I was waiting for her to die. The point was, I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Despite the fact that I thought the newer version was dumber, with inferior acting, and pacing, I was a little let down by the lack of death, or at least the lack of percieved danger. This version seemed tame. Not that tame is bad, but this seemed like it was missing a scene or two, or maybe even a whole act. The conflict of our main character (her guilt about how her own mother died) is never fully realized, and ultimately doesn’t seem a good enough reason for her to be so introspective, and awkward. Without the realization of threat of the spirits manipulation of Eleanor’s neediness, and fear, the motivation for what happens is not fully believable, and ultimately rings false.
Despite my disappointment, The Haunting has a number of very effective scenes, the most notable of which is the scene in which Eleanor wakes up to the sound of the ghost stomping around outside her room. She grabs hold of the hand of who she believes is her roommate (the at times aggrivating, at times compassionate Theo played by Claire Bloom), only to find out after the moment has passed that she was much to far away for it to have been her. Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks) has a few funny lines and is generally the best character whenever he’s on screen.
One other thing that was a bit of a disappointment to me, was the inside of the house. It is supposed to be this awesome, fearful place, that is completely it’s own character. It wasn’t that so much. All I saw of it was a jumbled grouping of dark walls that didn’t convey a mood or tone. Also I didn’t really have a sense of where in the house the characters were. There seemed to be no main room, no kitchen, no logical layout, it was all bedrooms, and stairs.
All in all, a bit of a disappointment.