THE HAUNTING - 1963
Review by Ed Nguyen
Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
Director: Robert Wise
Audio: English mono, French mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, letterbox widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: cast and crew commentary, still gallery, cast and crew page, short essay, trailer
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2003
House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more.
Silence laid steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and
whatever walked there, walked alone."
director Robert Wise is mentioned, most people automatically conjure mental
images of his justifiably famous musical adaptations of West Side Story and The Sound
of Music. And for the sci-fi
crowd, there are Star Trek: the Motion
Picture and the classic The Day the
Earth Stood Still. But, most
people do not typically associate Robert Wise with horror films. It may come as a surprise to them that Robert Wise actually
honed his skills early in his career on many horror films. For several years, he even worked with legendary horror film
producer Val Lewton, the mastermind behind classics as Cat People and I Walked with a
Zombie. It may come as an even
greater surprise that Wise's follow-up to West
Side Story was a return to his roots - a modestly budgeted horror film that
has since established itself as one of the finest haunted house films of all
time. That film was The
people may be familiar with the recent Hollywood remake of The Haunting as a Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle.
The resultant film had admittedly impressive set designs and a
charismatic cast but was otherwise a complete mess.
Clumsily directed with uninspired acting, the film over-emphasized CGI
effects to the detriment of the actual horror elements of the original story.
Wise's The Haunting, however, was in
another league altogether. Here was
a film which very effectively achieved its thrills almost entirely through
suggestion and the power of imagination. Employing
clever sound effects and disturbing camerawork, the Robert Wise film has scared
generations of fans witless using absolutely zero special effects and zero blood
and guts. It is gothic horror
filmmaking at its finest, especially with the versatile Robert Wise at the helm.
setting of The Haunting is Hill House,
a manor of ill repute built a century ago by an eccentric millionaire named Hugh
Crain. The house's history is a sad
one, marred by misfortune almost from its very creation.
Crain's young first wife, for whom he built the manor, had never lived to
enter it, dying instead in a freak carriage accident on the estate grounds.
Crain's second wife, according to rumors and whispers, had been startled
by something in the house one evening, tumbling down the main stairs to her
death, a final look of terror on her face.
Crain, in his despondence, eventually abandoned the house, which fell
into the hands of Abigail, his daughter by his first marriage.
She stayed in Hill House until her death, wasting away day in and day out
in her nursery until old age and the inattentiveness of her young carekeeper
claimed her life. And so, the
carekeeper inherited the house, living there in uncomfortable solitude until one
day, she too claimed her life, hanging herself beside the spiral staircase in
the library. And ever since, Hill
House has remained empty, devoid of all residents (living, at least).
is, until Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) comes to hear of the house.
was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad."
Thus does he describe Hill House. As
a trained anthropologist interested in psychic phenomenon, Dr. Markway is
greatly intrigued by Hill House's sinister background.
Granted passage into the house by its remote owner, Mrs. Sannerson, he
plans to embark upon an experiment to evaluate the nature of its hauntings.
cautions Mrs. Sannerson, "The dead are not quiet in Hill House."
those grave words of warnings, Dr. Markway recruits two others with experiences
into the supernatural to aid him in his studies. One is Theodora (Claire Bloom), a young psychic with
exceptional ESP abilities. The
other is Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a nervous and fragile woman who was once
the subject of a strong poltergeist haunting.
A third person, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), accompanies them; he is Mrs.
Sannerson's young and opportunistic nephew.
Hoping to inherit Hill House one day, he views the house as nothing more
than an attractive tourist trap with future prospects.
A non-believer, he is present mostly for his own amusement.
of the film's early scenes are quite tongue-in-cheek. Usually, they revolve around the none-too-serious Luke
(coincidentally, alert viewers may recognize him as the leader of the Jets from
Robert Wise's West Side Story!).
Some of these scenes even have a deliberate kookiness to them, with a
light-hearted spirit that almost brings a comedic flare to the proceedings.
If the acting also seems somewhat theatrical, it may be due to the fact
that Richard Johnson was a Shakespearean actor, and Julie Harris was a
distinguished stage actress herself. Nonetheless,
the casualness of these early scenes may perhaps have been a deliberate ploy by
Robert Wise to catch audiences off-guard, for when the film becomes scary, it
becomes scary fast!
The tremendous, pendulous downswing of the film's mood arrives as swiftly
as the sudden fall of the temperature...once the hauntings begin.
remember the first time I watched this film.
I was a college student on a cold winter night, and I figured that a
silly black and white horror film from the 1960's wasn't going to scare me.
Boy, was I wrong! After the
film's first ghostly encounter, I subsequently watched the remainder of the film
huddled safely under the confines of a blanket.
the film starts with Dr. Markway, the true central character is that of Eleanor
Lance. She is a mousy woman, shy
and consumed in her own inner thoughts and filled with self-doubt and
frustrations. In coming to Hill
House, she sees the excursion as an opportunity to free herself from her former
life, yet the house begins to have an equally oppressive effect upon her. Hauntings and strange occurrences which arise around the
house increasingly center around Eleanor, as though Hill House sensed her
vulnerability and sought her out. As
the film progresses, Eleanor becomes increasingly distraught, gradually losing
control of her emotions and giving way to fear. And it is this fear which ultimately consumes her and drives
the film towards its terrifying conclusion.
The Haunting a ghost story?
Or, is it the story of a young woman who is slowly have a nervous
breakdown? Do the events of the
film truly occur as they are depicted, or are they harbingers of Eleanor's
disintegrating mentality? Since the
audience never actually sees a single ghost in the entire film, an argument
could reasonably be made for either case. In
any event, the psychological twist on the narrative adds an extra, disturbing
dimension to the storyline and is one of the reasons why the film is so
is a lesson I wish more film directors today would take to heart - that
psychological horror is often much more frightening than CGI horror.
We fear much more that which we cannot know or see; after all, many
people are afraid of the dark (which can hide all sorts of unpleasant
surprises), but how many of us are afraid of the light?
Robert Wise, a veteran of numerous horror films, understood this, and in
applying his years of experience into The
Haunting, has crafted one of the finest haunted house films ever.
But don't just take my word for it - wait for a dark and rainy night,
find a suitably-squeamish watching partner, grab a copy of this DVD, and see for
- Wonder why Dr. Markway's wife looks so familiar?
She is none other than Lois Maxwell, a.k.a. Miss Moneypenny of James Bond
presented in a widescreen format that preserves its original Panavision aspect
ratio. This was the first time I've
ever seen the film in widescreen, and I must say, the photography looks amazing.
Robert Wise easily proves here that he is a master of the widescreen
format, which was still relatively new at that time and certainly uncommon for a
black & white film such as The
the film is in black & white, but don't let that fool you.
The black & white photography, if anything, only enhances the deep
shadows and ominous turns and corners of the house, feeding on our natural and
instinctive fear of the dark. Robert
Wise, in his commentary for the film, even expresses his fondness for black
& white cinematography and its expressiveness potential, and he laments its
virtual disappearance from today's cinema as a lost art.
transfer, for the most part, is quite good.
The contrast levels are very solid with deep blacks and bright whites.
The picture is quite sharp with extremely good clarity.
Still, there are some small problems.
The print used for this DVD suffers from some fading associated with its
age. There is also the constant
presence of dust and debris as well as occasional minor scratches. Against the black & white photography, these
imperfections are not readily noticeable, but they are still there. The transfer also has a trace of edge enhancement.
aside from these minor blemishes, this is as good as I have ever seen The
Haunting. It looks great, and this DVD should please the film's legions
- The actual house used in The Haunting
really exists. For the movie,
Robert Wise photographed exterior shots of the house with infrared-sensitive
film to emphasize its eerie character!
significant amount of effort during the film's production went into the design
of the original soundtrack. Robert
Wise correctly recognized the importance that sound would have in creating the
proper atmosphere for his film. Audiences
which have seen this film in the theaters, or even on VHS, can subsequently
appreciate Wise's, uh, wisdom. Truly,
despite the film's powerfully effective visuals and solid acting all around, it
is ultimately the creaks and shrieks of The Haunting which make the film most memorable.
why is it that forty years after Wise's film was made that the sound engineers
of today can't get his soundtrack right? I
will grant one thing for the inferior remake of The Haunting - at least its DTS soundtrack really wallops this one.
the film's first truly frightening moment (chapter 12), I was perturbed by how
strangely un-scary it seemed. Was
it because I had watched the film too many countless times to be surprised or
entertained by it anymore? No way,
that wasn't it, so it was only when I randomly switched to the French audio
track that I realized the problem - it was the English track itself!
I would not go so far as to say it is bad, but it is certainly a little
major (and I do mean MAJOR) flaw is that it is mixed much too softly.
This was easy to overlook during scenes of dialogue, but once the
hauntings began, I quickly realized that something was amiss!
My eventual solution was to turn the volume up very
high. But really, I shouldn't
have even needed to do this. I have
a strong audio sound system, so why was I required to crank the volume
up to a level that would honestly have been overwhelmingly deafeningly with any
I wonder if perhaps Warner Brothers had not gotten too carried away with their
noise reduction and effectively removed too
much sound from the film? It's okay
to clean up the soundtrack and to remove traces of hiss and noise, but the
resultant audio, in this case seems somewhat....empty, and might I add, lacking
Brothers comes close to dropping the ball on this one.
At any rate, take my advice on this point - when you watch this film, you
really need to crank up the volume.
of the extras are fairly minor in nature. The
cast & crew section is just one page, and "Things That Go Bump in the
Night" is a short and forgettable essay that basically lists other ghostly
movies over the years. The stills
gallery is more interesting, as it is divided into an extensive section
containing promotional art and many publicity stills and a second section
containing excerpts from Robert Wise's original script.
Be sure to check out the promotional art section, which has an
interesting page of early, alternate titles for the film.
As for the script, the full-page text of the script is utterly illegible,
even on the largest TVs, but fortunately, this section zooms in on various
portions of the text to make it legible.
far the best feature, however, is the commentary. It offers reminiscences and anecdotes from Julie Harris,
Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, director Robert Wise and
screenwriter Nelson Gidding. Why...that's
the entire cast! And more!
The participants were recorded separately for this commentary, which for
the most part is dominated by Robert Wise and Richard Johnson.
I must admit, though, that it's wonderful how Robert Wise in recent years
has taken such an active interest in his films as they arrive on DVD.
I wish more older directors would do the same!
Tamblyn, as well, is a hoot and is easily the most energetic of the
commentators. Listen to his
comments around chapter 14 especially when he describes the film's actual house,
which at the time had a real cemetery in the back and was reported to be quite
haunted. He'll relate his own
ghostly encounter during filming. It's
a chilly story! Who would ever
believe that the house is now a hotel, of all things?