Directed by Robert Wise
Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting is a classic haunted house story. It became well known in genre circles for its use of ingenious practical effects and the inclusion of a openly lesbian character portrayed in a non-stereotypical fashion.
Dr. John Markaway begins a paranormal investigation at the infamous Hill House with three other people – Luke Sannerson (Tamblyn), the heir of the house’s owner, Theo (Bloom), a pyschic, and Eleanor (Harris), a shy young woman who recently lost her ailing mother. The Hill House has experienced many unexplained deaths and is rumored to be haunted. By the first night of their stay, strange noises and occurrences plague the group and it appears that Eleanor may have a deeper connection to the house than anyone realized.
Screenwriter Nelson Gidding initially envisioned the elements of the haunting to be figments of Eleanor’s imagination, but after talking to Shirley Jackson, he decided to rewrite the screenplay with the supernatural elements intact, but left just ambiguous to make audiences question their existence with most of haunting occurring off screen. His contract with MGM mandated the film be shot in black and white, but Wise was unfazed as he preferred to shoot genre pieces that way. He was careful to ascribe to Val Lewton’s ideas of “less is more” in horror filmmaking, having worked with the producer on his directorial debut, The Curse of the Cat People.
The Haunting was highly regarded for its use of practical effects and camera tricks. Wise wanted to make the hallways on the interior set look longer and darker, and approached Panavision about using a 30 mm lens still in development. The company forced him to sign a waiver stating the lens was imperfect, but it ended up giving him the exact effect he was looking for. Wise also used a combination of pans and tracking shots to keep the camera constantly in motion, as well as low angle shots to give the house a more ominous feel. Conversely, Harris was usually shot from above to make her seem more vulnerable and fragile. Rapid cuts and Dutch angles were used by Wise to make the audience feel uneasy, and the lack of natural light and window views prevent viewers from determining what time of day the action occurs in.
Harris and Bloom are excellent in this film. Harris took great pains to distance herself from the rest of the cast to make the feeling of being an outcast genuine. Her isolation led to a growing depression, and she used that depression to develop her character. Bloom’s stylish, brash portrayal of Theo works as a very nice contrast to Eleanor’s meekness. Reportedly, she was excited to play Theo as openly gay and she and Wise wanted to push the envelope as far as possible. MGM limited how Theo could be portrayed and insisted that Bloom could not touch Harris on screen. Even so, The Haunting is one of the few films of that era to depict a non-stereotypical out lesbian character.
The Haunting is a precursor to many of the best modern supernatural films. It’s easy to see its influence on films like Insidious, The Sentinel, and The Amityville Horror, and continues to be a favorite of genre fans, most notably Stephen King and Martin Scorsese.
Fright Rating: 2.5 gasps out of 5
The scares are mostly suggested, but Wise was a very skilled filmmaker and the overall mood of the film is very creepy. Check out this film and then read Jackson’s excellent novel!