Friday, 21 January 2011

Film Review: The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise

Julie Harris ... Eleanor 'Nell' Lance
Claire Bloom ... Theodora 'Theo'
Richard Johnson ... Dr. John Markway
Russ Tamblyn ... Luke Sanderson
Fay Compton ... Mrs. Sanderson
Rosalie Crutchley ... Mrs. Dudley
Lois Maxwell ... Grace Markway
Valentine Dyall ... Mr. Dudley
Diane Clare ... Carrie Frederick
Ronald Adam ... Eldridge Harper

 An old house appears on screen as a voice narrates it's gruesome past in the screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel 'The Haunting of Hill House'. The film follows the events at Hill House, a house that may or may not be haunted, or even intrinsically evil. Robert Johnson plays the role of Dr Markway, a scientist (or more accurately an anthropologist) who has set out to prove that ghosts are real. Joining him in his experiments are Eleanor 'Nell' Lance (Julie Harris) who at a young age experienced a poltergeist , Theodora (Claire Bloom)a psychic and Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn)who is set to inherit the Hill House estate. Markway's plan is to lure any spirits in the house out into the open Theodora and Eleanor who are both acquainted with the paranormal. The forces that be soon make themselves known by creating a percussive cacophony(1), deeply upsetting Nell and Theo. The House exibits some more strange behaviour; a bending door and stair case that destroys itself. Despite all this Nell thinks this is her place in life, to stay at Hill House and be free from her past troubles, a belief that will be her undoing.

This is rather creepy for an old film, previous experiences with the 1960's would be 'The Fly' which had only one good shock when the fly/human screams out 'help me!'. The Haunting is a different ocean of fish (a kettle is too small to fit the differences in). It's shot in a black and white and leads us in with a view of Hill House whilst a voice narrates its eveil history of death, madness and plausible murder. Not long into film we finally arrive at Hill House for a good look around at its period style. A review for the Time Out film guide remarks that "What makes the film so effective is not so much the slightly sinister characterisation of the generally neurotic group, but the fact that Wise makes the house itself the central character, a beautifully designed and highly atmospheric entity which, despite the often annoyingly angled camerawork, becomes genuinely frightening" (Time A view that I agree with completly. The film would be much poorer if not for the focus on the house which is not so much haunted by malignant spirits as more or a malignant spirit itself; it thrusts itself onto the minds and mental wellbeing of any and all who dwell within. The doors close on their own, there are few right-angles to be found and a 'cold spot' where the ambient temperature is much lower (an excellent bit of special effects here), all this plays havoc on the group and the spiritual side of things hasn't even come out of the closet yet!

The house appears in many an uncanny shot too. Almar Halfidason reviewed the film for the BBC films website says "Davis Boulton extrudes considerable atmosphere from the gothic splendour of the house. Using deliberately unsettling camera angles he captures the movie in icy cold shadow-strewn photography (courtesy of infrared stock)". This is true, the effect that nightime filming has with black and white stock always makes things spookier. It is my personal opnion that high resolution colour film tends to 'describe the horror' out of things. There are occasional shots of the outside of Hill House with the camera tilted or perfoming dolly zooms which are really effective and give the dark windows an appearance of staring down with barely restrained power.

Luke's breath hangs in the air at the cold spot

The door bulges out as some inexorable force presses against it

Finally the special effects much me mentioned. Despite the age of the film the special effects are quite awesome. There is a scene where Dr Markway finds a 'cold spot', an area where the ambient temperature is much lower because of paranormal activity. Luke the non believer kneels down to inspect it saying there must be a draught and breathes out condensation. Another scene is where a door bends inward under some ghostly pressure. Both of these special effects are perfectly executed and are not just there for show unlike modern films that would use effects for the sake of it. The effects are there to highlight the strange goings on, we could believe the cold spot is there just on words alone but seeing Luke's breath makes us have no doubt whatsoever while the bendy door really punches the idea that what is in the house is more than just something that bangs on walls

The Haunting is unlike many horror films that focus on animate things as being evil, for example Halloween's Jason Vorhees or films that focus on an actual spirit as the perpetrator of unease e.g. the Lamia from Drag Me To Hell. Instead The Haunting puts forth a different, perhaps more interesting and unhomely idea as quoted from Ian Nathan's review from Empire Online "... distant bumps grow louder and closer, doors bulge under elusive pressures, and a spiral stairway will collapse ... Can evil be contained in the very fabric of a building? It’s a daring idea that Robert Wise crafts into something genuinely unsettling" and indeed it is.

(1)always wanted to use that word
(2)A dolly zoom is where the camera moves backward whilst zooming in, this changes the focal length and makes everything appear to seperate into the near, middle and far planes

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