The Haunting (1963)

Film review: The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise

Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris) has been her mother’s carer for a number of years, but now she’s forced out of her home by her greedy siblings. Fortunately, she’s been invited to Hill House, so she has somewhere she can go.

There, she’s met by the grim and creepy caretakers, the Dudleys (Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall), who make sure she realises that no one’s around to hear them scream in the night, in the dark. Luckily, the more positive-spirited Theodora/Theo (Claire Bloom) shows up to take Nell’s mind off things.

Spooky old Hill House will be inherited by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), and he has joined Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) to oversee the “experiment”. Hill House, you see, is haunted – or so they say. Dr Markway wants to investigate if this is true, and has invited Nell and Theo to attract the spirits’ attention. Theo has very strong ESP and Nell has a history of psychokinesis. What could possibly go wrong?

The Haunting is based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is a book I very much enjoyed. Unlike The Haunting (1999), which is very loosely based on the novel (in fact, you might call it “inspired by” rather than “based on”), this version actually bears a resemblance with the novel. It, sadly, doesn’t feature the planchette-wielding comic relief, but it does make a point about the house being built to unsettle people, with angles that are ever so slightly off … rather than, oh, the house being possessed a child-murderer wanting his secrets kept buried with loads of CGI.

Did I mention I like this film a lot better than the 1999 remake? Because I do, I do, I do.

This is spooky stuff at its best. No CGI needed. All you need is a creepy-looking wall full of stucco that makes a frowny face, slighly off camera angles, and tantalisingly vague ghosts. It’s really more about the complete psychological breakdown by a mentally frail, grieving woman than about the spirits in the house. But there are spirits, and oh boy are they creeping you out!

See, the thing is, if you keep the scary thing from being shown, it remains mysterious – and with that, it remains scary. It’s the dreaded “unknown”. If we were to see it, it wouldn’t be scary anymore, because then we’d know what it is. That’s why the re-make completely fails, and this film completely works. It’s fabulous. And absolutely perfect for Halloween night.

Even if you’re into parapsychology, you can enjoy this film, which is more than you can say about a lot of horror films. If you enjoy actors that are good, you can also enjoy this film, which is more than you can say about a lot of films too.

Oh, and Richard Johnson is actually quite a babe, if you can see past that moustache …

4 out of 5 rickety staircases, and I need to get hold of the book and re-read it. It’s been far too long!

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