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The Haunting
1963 - G - 112 Mins.
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Robert Wise
Written By: Nelson Gidding
Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
Review by: Jake Cremins
   

The only working bathroom was at the top of this staircase, perhaps Hill House's most devious cruelty.
It's a wonderfully nasty shock to see again the G-rated 1963 version of 'The Haunting,' and to discover that it's a good deal scarier than anything that's come out in 2004. I'm not praising it for being restrained or genteel or anything like that; I'm praising it for being really and truly frightening. 'The Haunting' is famous mostly for being the horror movie that uses offscreen sound and suggestion instead of actually showing anything, and no doubt film students are watching a clip of it as you read this, learning all about sound effects. You kind of expect to see this movie and appreciate its inventiveness without ever actually being scared by any of it. You do that, and then you see it, and then you find yourself sitting up in bed all night clutching a baseball bat.

The story is based on Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House," and amazingly is not only fairly faithful to the book but to Jackson's unique flavor of writing (I figured that this was impossible). The setting is Hill House, a forbidding New England mansion which sits at the end of a long driveway as though waiting for prey. It has had the usual sordid history of unexplained deaths and lonely suicides as it's been passed from generation to generation, and now lies understandably empty.

This is all delightful to Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), who studies the supernatural and is dying to stay in the house and look for paranormal phenomena. To this end he combs journals and articles looking for the right group of people to bring along; in the end only two reply. They are Theo (Claire Bloom), who exhibits a fair level of ESP, and Eleanor (Julie Harris), our main character, who has been selected for reasons that aren't immediately obvious. Also along is Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who's next in line to inherit the place and wants to start estimating how much he can sell it for.

The things that happen after everyone arrives at Hill House are intensely creepy on at least two levels. One is the physical stuff you'll be expecting, from rapping noises on the other side of the door to disembodied laughter to the unsettling, off-kilter design of the house itself; most of this would be pointless to describe, not the least because I'd be spoiling it for you. Again, though, it's one thing to know that this movie gets its scares from spooky noises instead of bloody chainsaw murders and to think "Oh, how quaint," and it's quite another to see how effectively, how *mercilessly* this movie makes you jump three feet in the air when you're least expecting it.

The other, deeper level on which this movie works concerns the characters--mostly Eleanor, who seems to have corners in her mind as dark and disturbing as Hill House's. Life has turned her into a terminal shut-in, and she comes to the house in order to make friends, to be part of something, to have something happen to her. She approaches this opportunity with an eagerness so intense that it's really desperation, something not endearing but vaguely off-putting.

We watch helplessly as Eleanor's attentions volley from one person to another and finally begin a sickening slide towards the house itself, which seems only too eager to respond. Haunted houses are the most cerebral of horror movie villains, after all: they don't run around murdering people but work slowly and mercilessly on their minds, and when the right person comes along...well, when we find out how Markway found Eleanor's name and invited her, it all comes together: not why she was selected, exactly, but why it is very dangerous for her to be here, and why she desperately wants to stay all the same.

And that's pretty early on, too. The rest of the film has set pieces as frightening as anything, but they're given an added, more chilling level because we begin to think about why they're happening, and what might be causing them, and there's no answer that isn't pretty terrifying. What does a haunted house like this want, anyway, when you're in one of its bedrooms and something is scratching on the door and pleading for you to let it in? This is what you'll wonder about as you lie awake in bed, trying to figure out what made that floorboard creak.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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