The Haunting (1963) Review

The Haunting 1963by Jesse Miller,

The Haunting begins with a macabre introduction to the tragic tale of Hill House and through the opening narration, the audience learns that the site of Hill House has seen many tragedies over it’s 80 years, leaving some to think it haunted.

Adapted from the excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the film tells the story of a group of people who come to spend a few nights in an eerie old mansion in hopes of capturing paranormal activity.
Led by the ever-optimistic Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), the team consists of Luke (Russ Tambyln) the house’s sceptic heir willing to sell it for money, sarcastic psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the main lead Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown for many reasons.

Having been left to take care of her recently deceased mother for the majority of her life, Eleanor sees this little trip to Hill House as an adventure. She feels the craving for adventure, romance and the need to belong so much that she so desperately wants to stay in the house forever. Through her voice-overs, the audience gets to hear what she’s constantly thinking and as the film goes on, her thoughts become more insecure and more paranoid.

What’s fascinating here is that everything that goes on inside this mansion can be interpreted as something that is part of Nell’s repressed personality. From the mansion’s nightly furious banging on the walls that echoes her mother’s rattling cane along the wall for assistance to Theo’s blatant lesbian advances.

The film becomes not only a horror film, but also a dark and brooding character-driven psychological drama and it’s because of these facts that it is really a disquieting film. Is the house really alive or has Eleanor grown insane? And to a lesser point, what the hell is Theo’s sexuality?

These are the questions that Jackson explores in the novel and it is the question that Director Robert Wise presents to his audience here, as we witness the strange activity through the eyes of the unhinged Eleanor. The ambiguous nature of the film makes it all the more engaging and nevertheless, questions like these fit into Eleanor’s psyche and it’s this very psyche that takes multiple viewings to take everything completely in.

It’s a creepy film that lets the imagination do all the work. There is no CGI here – claustrophobia comes in the form of shadows, unconventional camera shots, fantastic cinematography and the moody score. Nothing is ever seen, it is always implied something is there and really, isn’t that the scariest thing? Rather than having an overblown scare you might see these days in horror films, the audience gets to use their imagination.

The actors fit their small roles here perfectly. Claire Bloom as the dryly-sarcastic Theo is definitely a highlight here, while Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson both provide some excellent support work. However it is Julie Harris who steals the show as the troubled and lonely Eleanor. From the opening inner monologue to the disturbing climax, she truly shines in her performance and it is her heartfelt and unsettling journey that is both deeply disturbing and deeply touching.

The Haunting is wonderfully adapted by Nelson Gidding, and brilliantly brought to life by Robert Wise and his team, who successfully manage to capture that particular spirit and magic of the novel and pull it off beautifully. It is a rich and thought-provoking psychological horror film, and much like its title suggests, it is quite a haunting story.

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