The Haunting (1963) Movie Review

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The story of The Haunting was originally a novel called The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (A writer who influenced both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King), and is considered 1 of the best literary ghost stories of the 20th century.  Written in 1959 and proving to be popular, it was only a matter of time until a film adaption would be created.  However, when people hear about The Haunting, they might remember it as a film from 1999 with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson and Lili Taylor.  When it came out, it was completely panned for its stupidity, hated when compared to its source material, and criticised for its vision – 1 were modern horror film makers were accused of believing that audiences are only scared of gore and good looking CGI.  The original 1963 film version of The Haunting (presumably easier to remember without mentioning  Hill House), compared to that mess, is a very, very different film.

Directed by Robert Wise (who directed The Day The Earth Stood Still & The Sound Of Music), The Haunting is set in New England, but shot in Ettington, Warwickshire (‘Old’ England), and revolves around 4 people who enter a maze-like mansion that…isn’t so much haunted…but rather it is simply an evil house.  At the beginning we’re given the history of the mansion; where many people over the years mysteriously died, under unusual and sinister circumstances.  The newest owner of the estate, a sharp, elderly woman named Mrs Sanderson (played by Fay Compton), chooses to keep the house and look after it, but not actually live within its walls.  She is approached by Dr. John Markway (played by Richard Johnson in this and Liam Neeson in the remake), who seeks permission to occupy the house for a week, in order to study the possible paranormal activity that plagues it.  She agrees, but only under the condition that he takes her heir, Luke Sanderson (played by Russ Tamblyn in this and Owen Wilson in the remake), with him.  Which he does.  He then invites 2 women with past experiences of paranormal activity – Theodora, aka Theo (played by Clair Bloom in this, and Catherine Zeta Jones in the remake), an artist with psychic abilities, who might play for either the other team or both teams (hinted, not shown), and Eleanor “Nell” Lance (played by Julie Harris in this and Lili Taylor in the remake), who is a 30-something year old woman experiencing both excessive guilt over the recent passing of her mother, and a lack of empathy from her sister’s family.  They all enter the house and dine on a whole salmon that evening, and after a few nights they realise there’s nothing wrong with the place and all go their separate ways…Well, not really.  The reason for Markway’s choice in individuals is purely for a science experiment, as he chose someone who doesn’t believe in anything beyond what he sees (Luke Sanderson, although he probably fit him in due to the mandatory agreement), someone who can see the future (Theo) and someone who can see the past (Nell), in order to see if there are similar or different results.

The Haunting is not a horrifying or even a particularly frightening film, in fact you will find no gore or blood anywhere, not even chocolate sauce (Hitchcock reference).  But despite this fact, there is no denying that this is an unsettling, intimidating, and creepy film.  Over 50 years later, its effect hasn’t gone away.  I watched it with the lights off and headphones on, and there is a timelessness to the effect it was searching for.  The cinematography and lighting choices are legendary!  I absolutely adored the film’s dark, brooding presentation of the house, and how both have been used for the scares.  The sound was a bit low for the DVD (make sure you can turn it up), but the sound effects and music in this is are also fantastic.  They’re simple, but enough to get the heart racing.  The acting is absolutely awesome, everybody did a fantastic job, but particularly from Julie Harris as Nell – she shows off an enormous amount of range, she’s timid, well-spoken, fragile, and angry, all at the same time…She’s quite annoying, but I guess that’s part of the point.  Claire Bloom as Theo brings a mild sex-appeal to the film, and trust me when I say, she would have made a great Catwoman.  Richard Johnson was charismatic and witty as John Markway (and is an awesome narrator, thoroughly underrated).  Luke Sanderson’s great as a worldly man who likes drink and gambling, and even Mrs Sanderson and the caretakers, Mr & Mrs Dudley (Valentine Dyall & Rosalie Crutchley) were in small but memorable roles.

The film’s themes vary from ‘belonging’ to ‘Parallel Events’ to ‘real vs the mind’, but the primary 1 is fear, which somehow connects the others.  We don’t know whether there are actually ghosts in this house, or if it’s all in their heads (especially in Nell’s head).  Characters will hear and see things that the others won’t notice, but then there are other occurrences were the experience is mutual.

The only thing I might have against this film is that the plot and some character development is a little incoherent.  Nell’s backstory isn’t entirely clear, and why her sister Carrie (played by Diane Claire) is a complete bitch towards her isn’t clear either (They just lost their mother, why be so horrible to a grieving person?  Perhaps it’s what Nell needed to go to the haunted house?), and backstories from all characters are rather minimal, with the exception of the house itself.  But they’re still likeable.  Then again, I haven’t read the novel (Which I really need to do now that I’ve watched this), so there might be an explanation there.

Would I recommend this film?  Yes!  It’s a classical Horror film that’s trapped in 2 dimensions.  It is presented like a hammer horror classic, but its approach to an unseen horror somehow modernises it a bit.  The lighting and cinematography should be studied more, because it’s fantastic.  And it maintains a sense of humour in the quieter times.  Whether you get it on DVD or import the Blu-Ray from the USA or buy it on Amazon Prime, this is 1 film that deserves to be watched as a Halloween Favourite.

Overall rating: ****1/4 out of 5

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