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THE HAUNTING
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson and 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 Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 15, 2013

"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 looks amazing on Blu-ray, and is proof positive that high definition can deliver wonders for a black and white film.  The cinematography was top-notch, and this disc from Warner delivers all the beautiful contrast and crispness it's due.  The print looks remarkable, and detail level and clarity is superb throughout!  

Audio ***

The uncompressed mono is a big step above the former DVD release, which was mixed a little too softly.  Now there's better dynamic range and better ambience throughout the film.  The sound is essential, and it helps deliver Robert Wise's vision to a whole new level of eeriness.

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!

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