Anthropologist Dr Richard Markway is fascinated by the paranormal
and plans an experiment to find 'the gateway to another world'
by occupying New England's notoriously 'born bad' Hill House.
He is accompanied by three 'test subjects': the dowdy and
emotionally fragile Eleanor; Theo, a beatnik lesbian; and
Luke, the sceptical nephew of the mansion's owner. A pretty
standard set-up, for sure, but never forget that a closed
mind is the worst defence against the supernatural. Based
on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson...
I pity anyone for whom mention of The Haunting brings
to mind only Jan De Bont's vulgar and scare-free 1999 adaptation.
At last, an excellent DVD release will allow them to get acquainted
with Robert Wise's classic 1963 version. Existing fans will
need no further encouragement than the promise of an excellent
transfer and one of the best commentary tracks to date.
in widescreen black-and-white and with virtually no special
effects beyond a bulging door and dry ice for some foggy breath,
Wise and his team created one of the great haunted house movies.
And it still works, largely because it is pitched in ambiguous
territory between psychological drama and all-out horror.
back to his early directing days at RKO, Wise returned to
the Val Lewton formula for letting the audience's imagination
do the hard work.
is suggested, nothing is seen. Shadow achieves more than De
Bont's overwrought CGI ever even hints at, and the echo of
a face peering out from wallpaper leaves the viewer far more
fearful than any orgy of animatronics. The original's widescreen
compositions - completely lost when the film gets one of its
occasional pan-and-scan TV screenings - are also meticulous
two other critical factors often go unremarked when the film
undergoes one of its fairly regular 'rediscoveries'.
Wise got excellent performances that are pitched a couple
of notches below melodrama - even in the homoerotic tension
between his two female leads. So, when he cranks up the tension
and the madness, the characters' reactions do count towards
an engrossing suspension of disbelief.
actors may not be familiar to today's audience, but this effective
four-hander has class at every corner.
Harris (Eleanor) went on to become Broadway's top Tony-award
winner; Claire Bloom (Theo) was Julie Christie's immediate
predecessor, a luminous beauty with great talent; Richard
Johnson (Dr Markway) was an RSC stalwart and possessed considerable
on-screen charm; and Russ Tamblyn (Luke) was an energetic
all-rounder, albeit one better known for such lighter fare
as West Side Story (another Wise masterpiece) and George
Pal's Tom Thumb.
are different in their approaches and strengths but also complementary.
It is interesting to hear on the commentary that the on-set
chemistry was not as good as what we get on-screen. Harris
suffered from depression during filming and felt alienated
from the three others. Ironically, her affliction proved perfect
for her role (and, happily, she overcame it).
second important factor is the design. Art director Elliot
Scott would go on to work with Steven Spielberg on the second
and third Indiana Jones movies and handle the technical
nightmare that was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His work
here shows why.
script - parts of which are on the disc - describes Hill House
thus: "It is a monstrous building. No one can say exactly
what suggests evil in the face of a house, yet Hill House
is overwhelmingly evil." It ain't exactly great guidance for
a designer, but Scott comes up with something that initially
looks like any other grand stately home, yet gives ominous
hints of how it has gone wrong. Everything is just a little
- not as in 1999, humongously - off-kilter and thereby disturbing.
and his cameraman Davis Boulton back up the extraordinary
interiors with exteriors of a real English mansion (the film
was shot in the UK, although it is set in New England), Ettington,
near Stratford-upon-Avon. To be frank - and having once been
on a training course at the place - it doesn't look that scary
"in the flesh". But the clever use of high contrast lighting
and, in establishing shots, infra-red film turn it into one
of the best-ever screen monsters.
And for this film to work, 'monster' is the right word, because
Hill House is the fifth major character, manipulating all
the others. "Some houses are just born bad," we are told right
at the outset. Fail to back up that statement and you will
not get the creepiness you want. Get it right, and you can
trust the audience to fill in the blanks.
The combination of all these elements - not to mention Giddings'
intelligent script - are what make The Haunting a great
movie. It is not some high-blown theme - you can read it as
either a ghost story or a study of a nervous breakdown - but
its craft. It is a near perfect Hollywood movie, a chilling
entertainment assembled with care and skill across the board.
extras on the DVD reflect that. The commentary is a real standard-setter.
In part, this is because Wise is always good value, obviously
enjoying the chance to discuss his trade, and doing so without
ego but to share his knowledge (his tracks on The Day The
Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture
make those discs also worth buying, almost regardless of what
you think of the films themselves).
the disc's production team have gone that extra mile, both
by bringing in a wide range of contributors and then really
working on how their comments are presented.
are extremely useful and detailed contributions from actor
Johnson and writer Giddings. Like Wise, both eloquently illuminate
how they approached the film and talk about how it illustrates
aspects of their different crafts. Less frequently heard,
but also adding useful or amusing insights, are Harris, Bloom
and lastly (and memorably for his tale of a ghostly encounter
during shooting) Tamblyn. It's rare to see a studio try to
be so comprehensive for an older film.
observations have then been carefully edited together. Rather
than just running the film and inviting the participants to
ramble - all too often the case - observations are matched
to scenes, and we are also given breaks between the chat to
look at sequences in the film so that the mood is established
and then explained.
the commentary, there are also a stills gallery, which shows
how Wise annotated his script and how the film was marketed,
a theatrical trailer and, the one let-down, a perfunctory
'essay' on other ghost movies.
quibble, then, but this remains a valuable presentation of
a classic film with extras that you will visit more than once.
So, buy it, but remember that if you watch it alone, you might
still find someone holding your hand.
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