The Haunting (1963)

Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn
Warner Home Video
RRP: 12.99
Certificate: 12
Available now

Anthropologist Dr Richard Markway is fascinated by the paranormal and plans an experiment to find 'the gateway to another world' by occupying New England's notoriously 'born bad' Hill House. He is accompanied by three 'test subjects': the dowdy and emotionally fragile Eleanor; Theo, a beatnik lesbian; and Luke, the sceptical nephew of the mansion's owner. A pretty standard set-up, for sure, but never forget that a closed mind is the worst defence against the supernatural. Based on
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson...

I pity anyone for whom mention of The Haunting brings to mind only Jan De Bont's vulgar and scare-free 1999 adaptation. At last, an excellent DVD release will allow them to get acquainted with Robert Wise's classic 1963 version. Existing fans will need no further encouragement than the promise of an excellent transfer and one of the best commentary tracks to date.

Working in widescreen black-and-white and with virtually no special effects beyond a bulging door and dry ice for some foggy breath, Wise and his team created one of the great haunted house movies. And it still works, largely because it is pitched in ambiguous territory between psychological drama and all-out horror.

Harking back to his early directing days at RKO, Wise returned to the Val Lewton formula for letting the audience's imagination do the hard work.

Everything is suggested, nothing is seen. Shadow achieves more than De Bont's overwrought CGI ever even hints at, and the echo of a face peering out from wallpaper leaves the viewer far more fearful than any orgy of animatronics. The original's widescreen compositions - completely lost when the film gets one of its occasional pan-and-scan TV screenings - are also meticulous and powerful.

However, two other critical factors often go unremarked when the film undergoes one of its fairly regular 'rediscoveries'.

First, Wise got excellent performances that are pitched a couple of notches below melodrama - even in the homoerotic tension between his two female leads. So, when he cranks up the tension and the madness, the characters' reactions do count towards an engrossing suspension of disbelief.

The actors may not be familiar to today's audience, but this effective four-hander has class at every corner.

Julie Harris (Eleanor) went on to become Broadway's top Tony-award winner; Claire Bloom (Theo) was Julie Christie's immediate predecessor, a luminous beauty with great talent; Richard Johnson (Dr Markway) was an RSC stalwart and possessed considerable on-screen charm; and Russ Tamblyn (Luke) was an energetic all-rounder, albeit one better known for such lighter fare as West Side Story (another Wise masterpiece) and George Pal's Tom Thumb.

They are different in their approaches and strengths but also complementary. It is interesting to hear on the commentary that the on-set chemistry was not as good as what we get on-screen. Harris suffered from depression during filming and felt alienated from the three others. Ironically, her affliction proved perfect for her role (and, happily, she overcame it).

The second important factor is the design. Art director Elliot Scott would go on to work with Steven Spielberg on the second and third Indiana Jones movies and handle the technical nightmare that was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His work here shows why.

The script - parts of which are on the disc - describes Hill House thus: "It is a monstrous building. No one can say exactly what suggests evil in the face of a house, yet Hill House is overwhelmingly evil." It ain't exactly great guidance for a designer, but Scott comes up with something that initially looks like any other grand stately home, yet gives ominous hints of how it has gone wrong. Everything is just a little - not as in 1999, humongously - off-kilter and thereby disturbing.

Wise and his cameraman Davis Boulton back up the extraordinary interiors with exteriors of a real English mansion (the film was shot in the UK, although it is set in New England), Ettington, near Stratford-upon-Avon. To be frank - and having once been on a training course at the place - it doesn't look that scary "in the flesh". But the clever use of high contrast lighting and, in establishing shots, infra-red film turn it into one of the best-ever screen monsters.

And for this film to work, 'monster' is the right word, because Hill House is the fifth major character, manipulating all the others. "Some houses are just born bad," we are told right at the outset. Fail to back up that statement and you will not get the creepiness you want. Get it right, and you can trust the audience to fill in the blanks.

The combination of all these elements - not to mention Giddings' intelligent script - are what make The Haunting a great movie. It is not some high-blown theme - you can read it as either a ghost story or a study of a nervous breakdown - but its craft. It is a near perfect Hollywood movie, a chilling entertainment assembled with care and skill across the board.

The extras on the DVD reflect that. The commentary is a real standard-setter. In part, this is because Wise is always good value, obviously enjoying the chance to discuss his trade, and doing so without ego but to share his knowledge (his tracks on The Day The Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture make those discs also worth buying, almost regardless of what you think of the films themselves).

However, the disc's production team have gone that extra mile, both by bringing in a wide range of contributors and then really working on how their comments are presented.

There are extremely useful and detailed contributions from actor Johnson and writer Giddings. Like Wise, both eloquently illuminate how they approached the film and talk about how it illustrates aspects of their different crafts. Less frequently heard, but also adding useful or amusing insights, are Harris, Bloom and lastly (and memorably for his tale of a ghostly encounter during shooting) Tamblyn. It's rare to see a studio try to be so comprehensive for an older film.

These observations have then been carefully edited together. Rather than just running the film and inviting the participants to ramble - all too often the case - observations are matched to scenes, and we are also given breaks between the chat to look at sequences in the film so that the mood is established and then explained.

Alongside the commentary, there are also a stills gallery, which shows how Wise annotated his script and how the film was marketed, a theatrical trailer and, the one let-down, a perfunctory 'essay' on other ghost movies.

One quibble, then, but this remains a valuable presentation of a classic film with extras that you will visit more than once. So, buy it, but remember that if you watch it alone, you might still find someone holding your hand.

Paul Dempsey

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