Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘The Haunting’

The Haunting

Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn.

The Haunting is considered by many, including some random director named Martin Scorsese, to be one of the scariest movies of all time, the perfect haunted house movie. It is lauded for the fear it elicits while showing nothing on the screen that you might normally expect in a horror movie– no blood or ghosts or monsters. But in spite of how much I appreciated it, at the most all I felt was a mild creepiness.

Dr. Markaway (Richard Johnson) thinks he’ll find proof of the supernatural in Hill House so he gathers together Eleanor (Julie Harris), who finds herself emotionally lost after the passing of her overbearing mother, Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has strong tendencies towards ESP, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the blustery young man who stands to inherit the home, to conduct an investigation of the supposedly haunted mansion. They spend several nights there, exploring the home and witnessing its horrors. As the story progresses the house focuses its attention on poor Eleanor, feeding on her weakened psychological state to terrorize her and draw her into its depths.

The film is beautifully crafted. Robert Wise’s direction and the black and white cinematography are a pleasure to watch. The house is fascinating to look at; it’s not really beautiful but kind of wonderfully bizarre and worth exploring during the quieter scenes– mirrors are framed by elaborate metalwork, faces are carved into doorknobs, and large, elaborate leaves are chiseled into the walls. The performances are strong, especially Julie Harris’s portrayal of a sheltered woman searching for her freedom only to find herself trapped and seduced by the terrors of Hill House.

But we watch horror films to get scared and… I simply wasn’t. I was not gripping my seat, eyes wide open the same way I was with Insidious or Ju-on or [REC].

The scare sequences reveal nothing about the entity that haunts Hill House, which is what many find appealing about The Haunting. These set pieces are built out of creepy sound effects, acting, and camerawork; there are virtually no visual effects. Perhaps it is because of the film’s reputation for its restraint that I didn’t feel there was much at stake. When the door bulges in, pressed upon by some force and terrifying the characters in the room, the audience knows (well, I knew) nothing is going to burst through and attack the inhabitants. The knob on the door turns… but only slightly, not enough to truly convey that Something wants in the room. During these scenes I found myself for the most part emotionally detached, unmoved by the pounding and disembodied voices. Instead I remained fully aware of the crafting of the sound effects; I just couldn’t delve into it the way I wanted to.

I seem to be in the minority. Search for reviews on the Internet and you’ll find many people terrified of The Haunting. I wish I could have been one of them. It’s likely that you’ll have a different experience than I did, however, so if you haven’t you should probably check it out anyway.

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One Response to “Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘The Haunting’”

  1. Michael K Vaughan Says:

    You know, I kind of felt the same way. Perhaps is it WAS scary in 1963, I don’t know. I am almost never scared by “scary” movies anyway so I couldn’t judge it on that. The book was pretty spooky, but that was because you were in the screwed up main characters head all the time. The film is too set on “things that go bump in the night”.

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