Tuesday, September 30, 2008

#76: The Haunting


The Haunting
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding (based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House)
Released September 18, 1963

October is one of my favorite months, for two main reasons: Fall, and more importantly, Halloween.

Sure, when I was a kid, it was all about wearing costumes and grabbing that candy. The more important things for me, even then, were the scary movies. Most of my best costumes were based on movies I loved. One year, I was The Terminator, and another year saw me as a horribly disfigured soldier from Aliens, with bloody, blistered face makeup and a monster bursting out of my chest (since no real Aliens toys existed, I had to duct tape the Rancor Pit monster from Return of the Jedi to my body). Probably my favorite costume of all time, and the only one I repeated a few years later, was Robert DeNiro's greased up and tattooed Max Cady from Cape Fear.

I love "scary" movies, whether they fall under the genres of Science Fiction, Horror or Suspense. As far as I'm concerned, when they are done well, they can be the best pictures ever made (see The Shining, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the aforementioned Aliens/Alien for a few perfect examples). Of course, when executed poorly, they can also be the most disappointing and unbearable of all movies.

This October, I'm going to try my damndest to cover nothing but scary movies, and primarily movies I've never seen before. Since there always tends to be the occasional Netflix delivery gap, I may pepper this month with a few of my favorites. Hopefully, those of you who don't consider yourselves fan of these kinds of movies might be swayed by a few of my picks.

While it's only September 30th, I'm getting an early start tonight with The Haunting, one of the all time fright classics that I've never seen. I did manage to take in the lamentable 1999 re-make that starred Owen Wilson, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, and that was probably what scared me off of seeing the original. Aside from some hammy, embarrassing acting (Owen Wilson is not the only guilty party there), the movie was pretty much ruined by its reliance on computer generated special effects. I'm sorry, but knowing an actor is reacting to a green screen just tends to suck the tension right out of a scene.

There was none of that nonsense to be had in 1963, when The Haunting first reached moviegoers. Miraculously, this ghost story sheds not a single drop of blood in its running time, and relies heavily on the use of music, shadow and some clever camerawork to drum up most of its scares.

Director Robert Wise (I previously praised his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still) sets the tone early by showing us the history of Hill House and the lives that had been mysteriously taken within its walls. He then brings us to present day, where our narrator, Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway, is attempting to rent the house for use in a paranormal research investigation. Markway is attempting to prove the existence of ghosts, and assembles a team that includes Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), one of the potential heirs to the abandoned house, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and a woman named Theodora (Claire Bloom).

It doesn't take long for the house (if that's what is causing all of the commotion) to make its preference for Eleanor known. Eleanor, in turn, grows subconsciously fond of the attention, as we learn that she has spent the majority of her life looking after her sick and unhappy mother. Eleanor loves the attention so much that she claims to never want to leave. Is she the reason behind the strange incidents in the house? Is Dr. Markway playing tricks on his volunteers to observe their reactions? Just where is this lesbian subplot between Theo and Eleanor leading?

The Haunting may be a little slow by today's standards, but if you're the kind of patient viewer who can appreciate the slow building of tension, the movie definitely earns its classic reputation. I highly recommend watching this one late at night with the volume up loud. Without the sound, Humphrey Searle's ever present but constantly changing music combined with the eerie sound effects from Desmond Briscoe and the film's sound department, The Haunting just wouldn't work.

The blood and gore lovers will definitely be disappointed, but for those who long for "the good old days" of movie making, this is a great example of the belief that sometimes you don't need the bells and whistles of technology to get under the skin of an audience.

For more on The Haunting:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Haunting:

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