The Haunting (1963)

01/19/2017 16:34

Film: The Haunting

Year: 1963

Director: Robert Wise

Writer: Nelson Gidding

Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson



This film was one that I sought out since I saw the remake in the theater. I’ll admit, back then I was a fan. It would have been right around graduating from college that I saw this movie. A confession was at that time I didn’t love it. It has been on a list of ones to revisit to see where I stand with a more critical eye.

Synopsis: Hill House has stood for about 90 years and appears haunted. Its inhabitants have always met strange, tragic ends. Now Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) has assembled a team of people who he thinks will prove whether the house is haunted.

We begin with a voice-over narrative of the history of Hill House. We learn about the man who built it, Hugh Crane (Howard Lang). The history includes the deaths of his two wives, his own death and what happened to his only daughter. The house itself is filled with weird statutes and the interior is like the inside of a deranged mind. The dimensions aren’t prefect in any room.

It pulls back to show that Dr. Markway is the one recounting the events. He is speaking with Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton) about renting the house. He is assembling a team as the synopsis says to stay in Hill House for a few weeks to see if he can prove that ghosts exist. The people he invites are either experts or have documented interactions with the supernatural.

One of those he invites is Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris). She is living with her sister, Carrie Fredericks (Diane Clare), as well as her husband Bud (Paul Maxwell) and daughter Dora (Verina Greenlaw). Eleanor sleeps on the couch in the living room. She wants to go because she needs something in her life. After meeting her, we hear what her thoughts are throughout the time in the house. They are voiced over and through them we learn that she is on the verge, maybe at the beginning, of a nervous breakdown.

She arrives and we meet the other two people who will be staying at Hill House with Dr. Markway and Eleanor. One is a psychic named Theodora (Claire Bloom). This woman befriends Eleanor, while also picking at her. She is also kind of exotic compared to her counterpart. The other one being the relative of the woman who owns the house, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn). He doesn’t have any history with the paranormal, but he is lively and wants to look at the house.

Soon after they stay at the house, strange noises and bumping in the night follow Eleanor. It seems that she’s targeted. Theo also has experiences. The question is are these things happening or is it all in her head?

That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the story. Where I should start is that I’ve not read the source material from Shirley Jackson. It is on my ever-growing list of books and stories to read. What I do bring to the table is that I’ve seen the remake quite a few times. That includes in the theater as well on DVD. What I can say to end out this part is that this version is much better, even if it is more subdued.

Now with that out of the way, much like the remake, this one follows an experiment. Dr. Markway is out to prove there is an afterlife. He originally wanted more people to come to the house with them, but it ends up only being Eleanor and Theo. Luke is there more to watch over the house as he hopes to inherit it. We have a small, intimate cast. With that, we limit the amount of hauntings that we get. This to me though is more of a character study of Eleanor and the house itself than the actual haunting.

Let me then break down Eleanor more. It is fitting to use that term as it is a pun. Eleanor was taking care of her sick mother for years. Her sister went out and got married, now has a family. Due to that, she is more stable. The years of helping her mother have worn on Eleanor. It has stunted her socially and scarred her mentally. She is close to a mental breakdown. She also seems to have psychic abilities too. An incident from when she was a child is brought up. It was used verbatim in Rose Red, which is a take on this story as well. I thought this makes for an interesting concept to explore and Harris does good in her portrayal.

The house itself is where I’ll go next. I think this is another character in my opinion. We learn about the dimensions being off. It also has such odd items like statues and things to this effect. That is good as well. The house is also huge so it gets confusing to not only us as the viewer, but our characters themselves. I think this does well in making this place have good atmosphere without overdoing it. The cinematography also helps here. They do interesting things with it to feel disorienting. Going along with that, the sound design with the banging. There could be a logical explanation, but we don’t fully know.

That is the last part of the story I want to explore. There is a way to look at it as this house is haunted and wants Eleanor. Much like how Hugh’s first two wives pass away, she is the next one. There is also the idea that she snaps. All of the supernatural things that could be happening are around her. I’m more inclined to think this place isn’t haunted. Or if it is, the things happening are caused by Eleanor and her psychic abilities. She cannot control them and she is an emotional wreck. The fear and psychosis of this house is too much for her. I like how this is presented and left up to the audience for sure.

All that is left to go into then would be the acting. I’ve already said that Harris is good. I’d say that Bloom, Johnson and Tamblyn are all as well. They get isolated together we see that the longer they’re together, the more they annoy each other. We get the idea that Theo likes to pick. Dr. Markway is a good man. A dynamic here is that Eleanor starts to fall for him since he talks her up and shows her attention. This is more of her not understanding though since he is married. It works in the confines here. Luke is also immature and uses his confidence as a way to cover up that he’s scared. Aside from that, the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed. Special credit to Rosalie Crutchley as Mrs. Dudley. Her ominous warnings make this atmosphere work better too.

In conclusion, this is a solid haunted house movie. This one does something a bit different for the time where the house might not actually be haunted, but Eleanor. The performance there is good. Harris carries this with the character study. The atmosphere is built through the filmmaking. The setting helps as well. I still don’t love this movie, but I can see why it is considered a classic. I’d still recommend giving this a viewing for sure.


My Rating: 8 out of 10