Tuesday, October 31, 2006


The dead aren't quiet in Hill House

By Edward Copeland
It wouldn't seem appropriate to let Halloween pass by without a post about some classic horror film and, as luck would have it, I finally caught up with 1963's The Haunting this weekend on Turner Classic Movies. It takes some skill to make a film this creepy when very little concrete happens, but director Robert Wise accomplished it, even with an overuse of strange camera angles and an overblown musical score by Humphrey Seale.

Two factors though make The Haunting more than worthwhile: the exquisite black and white cinematography by Davis Boulton and a great performance from the legendary Julie Harris.

Most of the explicit horror occurs before the main plot of the film even gets rolling, as the narrator recounts the sordid history of Hill House with its many deaths that are associated with it, ranging from a young girl's mother to her own death as an old woman thanks to a distracted caretaker.

There's also the case of another ill-fated woman who took a mysterious plunge down the old house's lengthy staircase — and all this happens before Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) announces his intentions to study the supernatural rumors associated with Hill House.

For his study, Markway seeks assistant/witnesses, which he assembles in semi-hipster chick Theodora (Claire Bloom), boozy playboy Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who believes he's in line to inherit the place and troubled spinster Eleanor Lance (Harris), who may or may not have paranormal abilities of her own that Markway would like to capitalize on.

That is the plot essentially — four people spending time in a reputedly haunted house, but the true horror stems from psychological scars, most of which have been borne by Eleanor and Harris' performance almost single-handedly provides most of the chills. Her hysterics never seem overblown and she keeps the audience guessing — is she nuts? Is she a killer? Is the house really haunted?

To the film's credit, it doesn't answer the question explicitly, leaving it up to the audience to decide. I never bothered to see Jan de Bont's panned 1999 remake of the movie, but I can't imagine how state-of-the art special effects would add to the suspense and creepiness the 1963 version engenders. Who needs CGI when you have Julie Harris, gorgeous black-and-white imagery and a palpable feeling of dread?

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I've only caught snippets of the remake and don't care to see anymore. The CGI is more of a distraction than a bonus.

Also, while I adore The Haunting, I also adore Pauline Kael's typically apt summation of Julie Harris' character:
"The chaste heroine, Julie Harris (like an updated Helen Chandler, Dracula's anemic victim), is the movies' post-Freudian concept of the virgin: repressed, hysterical, insane - the source of evil."

The Haunting is a very interesting film. If I find that all the meandering metaphysical discussion makes it a bit too slow for my taste (especially when delivered by the dull Richard Johnson), not allowing the suspense to build as much as it should, there's certainly no fault to be found with the performance of Julie Harris. The Haunting is one of only three films that really provided the actress with a showcase worthy of her talents - The Member of the Wedding and East of Eden being the other two - and it's shame she didn't receive more recognition for it at the time. I also thought Claire Bloom was impressive in a very ambiguous role - the film is notable for its postive portrayal of a character who is implied to be a lesbian, which was rather daring for 1963.
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