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THE HAUNTING - 1963

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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

"Hill 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."

Film ****

Whenever 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 Haunting.

Many 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.

Robert 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.

The 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).

That is, until Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) comes to hear of the house.

"It 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.

But, cautions Mrs. Sannerson, "The dead are not quiet in Hill House."

Despite 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.

Some 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.

I 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.

Although 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.

Is 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 effective.

It 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 yourself!

Trivia - Wonder why Dr. Markway's wife looks so familiar?  She is none other than Lois Maxwell, a.k.a. Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame!

Video ***

The Haunting is 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 Haunting.

Yes, 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.

The 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.

Nevertheless, 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 of fans.

Trivia - 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!  

Audio ** 1/2

A 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.

So, 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.

Watching 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 disappointing.

Its 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 other DVD?

Furthermore, 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 in spirit?

Warner 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.

Features ** 1/2

Most 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. 

By 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!

Russ 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?

Summary:

The Haunting is one of the best haunted house films of all time.  This is old-school horror at its creepiest and scariest.  Have something ready to hide under when you watch this classic, and don't say I didn't warn you!  Top recommendation!