My first encounter with The Haunting was with the remake in 1999. It was a jump fest starring Liam Neeson that relied on random gore, too much CGI, and *spoiler altert!* let Owen Wilson get his head knocked off in a gigantic fireplace. That’s what I remember most today. At the time, I had no idea it came from an old horror classic and ate it up like popcorn.
The Haunting from 1963, directed by Robert Wise, is a fun, suspenseful horror film featuring the haunted Hill House. The film starts out with the house’s grizzly history: built by Hugh Craine for his wife who died on her way to Hill House, he met an unfortunate end as well, leaving a small daughter. As an old invalid woman, she dies in the house, due to neglect, and her negligent companion hangs herself in the house after inheriting it. Clearly, you don’t want to own the house next.
In the present, Dr Markway (Richard Johnson) wants to document scientific evidence to prove that ghosts do exist. He invites meticulously picked candidates to stay for the weekend at Hill House. These include Luke (Russ Tamblyn), an skeptical young man and the heir to the house; Theo (Claire Bloom), a psychic with the style of a movie star; and Eleanor (Julie Harris), a shy woman who has spent most of her adult life taking care of her sick mother, who recently died. Together, they experience some extraordinary events and whatever haunts Hill House grows stronger and more violent.
Even before she leaves, Eleanor has a strange pull toward Hill House. Staying with family since her mother’s death, she practically steals a car to accept Dr. Markway’s invitation. There are hints to Eleanor’s psychic abilities, but she is insecure and denies them. Even when frightening things happen at Hill House, Eleanor wants to stay, right up to the very end. Perhaps it’s a kind of destiny.
Some of the scariest moments in The Haunting focus on what it is you don’t see. At night, Theo and Eleanor huddle together, scared out of their wits about the noises in the house. These are much more than creepy creeks, but violent pounding, children screaming and a threatening roaring sound. You could swear something awful is just outside the door. What you can imagine is probably scarier than any image. Later in the film, a door seems to swell and contract, almost as if it were breathing, and just barely holding back whatever beast is haunting the house. If Dr. Markway had invited me in his study, I would have wet my pants the first night and ran the next morning.
What makes The Haunting frightening is how it relies on the presence of the house and a building sense of dread. To most viewers today, it may not be very scary, but more creepy and unsettling in a fun way. However, younger viewers may have nightmares, so judge accordingly. The wonderful details of the mansion are great eye candy, as well as the freaky-door scene. There’s also a wonderfully suspenseful scene featuring a spiral staircase that will make anyone think twice about climbing the next one they see.
“God! God! Whose hand was I holding?”