Monday, October 14, 2013

The Haunting (1963)

Director: Robert Wise                                     Writer: Nelson Gidding
Film Score: Humphrey Searle                         Cinematography: Davis Boulton
Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn

I’m not a huge fan of ghost stories though they can, at times, be entertaining. Two of my favorites are the film The Changeling, with George C. Scott, and the novel The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Both are incredibly well done and outright chilling. To my mind, even though both of them came twenty years later, they must have received some inspiration from The Haunting, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, herself no doubt inspired by the plethora of ghost stories written during the Victorian Era. At the helm is Oscar award winning director Robert Wise who began his career at RKO in the forties and had a very diverse career, directing pictures in every genre from horror, to noir, to westerns, to musicals.

Hill House, some ninety years old, has a gruesome past. The man who built the ornate monstrosity for his family had both of his wives die before him. His daughter, however, lived in the house until she died of old age while the woman she left it to hung herself. Eventually it passed to another old woman who winds up being asked by Richard Johnson to rent the place for his supernatural research. Of the half dozen or so people he asks to stay with him, only two show up. Julie Harris is a timid woman who uses the opportunity to get away from her claustrophobic family. The other is Claire Bloom, a genuine psychic who has little experience with ghosts. The fourth member is Russ Tamblyn, the new owner’s skeptical nephew who wants to make sure nothing happens to the place so he can sell it at a profit when he inherits the house.

It’s an atmospheric film, but the personalities don’t work for me. The first hour is incredibly talky, with Johnson trying to play both sides of the fence, in the same breath defending the idea of the supernatural and at the same time enumerating all the ways people have of explaining it away. In the end his overconfidence is a little off-putting. Tamblyn, of course, isn’t having any of it and makes a joke out of everyone’s unease. The part of the script that makes little sense is how wildly the relationship swings between the two women. In one moment they’re best friends and in the next they look ready to tear each other’s hair out. Part of this has to do with the fact that Bloom is always reading Harris’s mind, which I’m sure is made clearer in the book. Things really don’t begin to get scary until Johnson’s wife comes to stay and the house finally comes alive.

In the end it’s more of a psychological thriller than a ghost story, and Johnson’s initial assertion is true, that the ghosts never kill anyone. Instead it’s their own fears and mental instability that makes people complicit in their own deaths. For my taste it wasn’t very satisfying. For this type of thing I much prefer Robert Bloch’s screenplay for Cabinet of Caligari from the previous year. And in both films a more satisfying interpretation comes in light of the kind of domestic incarceration of woman as described in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” When viewed in this way the film is much more satisfying, but that certainly isn’t implicit in the writing of the screenplay. As it stands, The Haunting is more of a disappointment than an effective ghost story.

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