Certain to remain one of the greatest haunted-house movies ever made,
Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is antithetical to all the gory
horror films of subsequent decades, because its considerable frights
remain implicitly rooted in the viewer's sensitivity to abject fear. A
classic spook-fest based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of
Hill House (which also inspired the 1999 remake directed by Jan de
Bont), the film begins with a prologue that concisely establishes the
dark history of Hill House, a massive New England mansion (actually
filmed in England) that will play host to four daring guests determined
to investigate--and hopefully debunk--the legacy of death and ghostly
possession that has given the mansion its terrifying reputation.
Consumed by guilt and grief over her mother's recent death and driven
to adventure by her belief in the supernatural, Eleanor Vance (Julie
Harris) is the most unstable--and therefore the most
vulnerable--visitor to Hill House. She's invited there by
anthropologist Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), along with the bohemian
lesbian Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has acute extra-sensory abilities,
and glib playboy Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn, from Wise's West Side
Story), who will gladly inherit Hill House if it proves to be
hospitable. Of course, the shadowy mansion is anything but welcoming to
its unwanted intruders. Strange noises, from muffled wails to deafening
pounding, set the stage for even scarier occurrences, including a door
that appears to breathe (with a slowly turning doorknob that's almost
unbearably suspenseful), unexplained writing on walls, and a delicate
spiral staircase that seems to have a life of its own.
The genius of The Haunting lies in the restraint of Wise and
screenwriter Nelson Gidding, who elicit almost all of the film's
mounting terror from the psychology of its characters--particularly
Eleanor, whose grip on sanity grows increasingly tenuous. The presence
of lurking spirits relies heavily on the power of suggestion (likewise
the cautious handling of Theodora's attraction to Eleanor) and the
film's use of sound is more terrifying than anything Wise could have
shown with his camera. Like Jack Clayton's 1961 chiller, The Innocents,
The Haunting knows the value of planting the seeds of terror in the
mind, as opposed to letting them blossom graphically on the screen.
What you don't see is infinitely more frightening than what you do, and
with nary a severed head or bloody corpse in sight, The Haunting is
guaranteed to chill you to the bone. --Jeff Shannon Amazon
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