Monday, February 7, 2011

#34 The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963)

“Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here... walk alone.”

As I have probably already intimated on this blog what feels like a hundred times over, it was not until very recently that I had any appreciation for black and white films, and, more especially, for the horror genre. Black and white as a genre was something that bored me to death. I saw it as slow, dull, disinteresting, and…old, quite simply. As for the horror genre, it was something I simply couldn’t stand. Horror movies used to scare me far too much for me to be able to make it through them. My sentiments about both of these genres changed almost completely during my junior of high school, and, more specifically, everything with this movie: The Haunting. I watched this movie in my English class while we were covering Gothic Literature, and though it sounds cliché to say this, it really changed my perspective on film entirely.

The movie begins as a narrator tells us the peculiar and gruesome story of Hill House; a House built in the late 1800s which was “born bad”. We are then informed that the narrator has a fascination with the supernatural and haunted houses. The scene then cuts to the narrator in person, who is talking to the current owner of the Hill House (who doesn’t live there out of fear). The narrator, whose name is Dr. John Markway, plans to stay in the house, alongside some assistants, to document anything strange which might happen at the reported “genuine haunted house”, and he has come to the owner in the hope of getting her permission to stay in the house for a couple weeks. The old lady gives her assent, though appears skeptical that he will last for more than a couple days, and also demands that her nephew, Luke, who is the old lady’s next of kin, stay in the house with them. Next we cut to Eleanor Lance, who is talking with her sister and her family about borrowing the car to go on a vacation. Her sister forbids it, but Eleanor goes anyway. It turns out that she has been invited by Dr. Markway to participate in his experiment. She arrives at the house, after interacting with the very creepy caretakers, moves into the house and meets her first partner, Theo, who we learn has ESP, when she instinctively knows everything that Eleanor is thinking. We then meet Dr. Markway, followed soon after by Luke, who is a pompous blue blood only visiting the house in the interest of selling all of its contents. The four of them get settled into the house, before slipping off to bed. Weird things happen almost immediately as strange noises start presenting themselves to Eleanor and Theo. The next day the group takes a tour of the house, and learns that Eleanor bears a striking resemblance to a past resident of the house. The next night there are more strange occurrences, and Dr. John begins fearing that Eleanor may be too unstable for the experiment. Eleanor demands not to be taken home, however. The next day begins to show Eleanor becoming more deranged, however, as she begins to believe that she belongs in the house; that its spirits are calling for her.

Things continue similarly until Dr. Markway’s wife appears at the house. Mrs. Markway, who is very skeptical of John’s supernatural studies, demands to stay in the house until John will come home with her. Eleanor, who is besotted with Dr. Markway, suggests spitefully that Mrs. Markway stay in the nursery, which is the supernatural heart, and therefore most dangerous, part of the house. The skeptical Mrs. Markway accepts in spite of the protests and begging of the other four residents. The other four decide to spend the night in the study, and after some terrifying noises and unnatural door movements, the four hear noises coming from the nursery, and rush off to find Mrs. Markway, who they learn has vanished. The four then continue looking for the woman, though Eleanor soon becomes separated from the group, lost in her own delusions. Eventually the three find and confront Eleanor, and force her to go home while the rest of them continue their search for Mrs. Markway. However Eleanor is sure that the house wants her to stay, and so drives off into the park of the house before any of them can stop her. She drives along for a time before finally the car appears to steer itself into the selfsame tree that the first wife of the original owner of the house crashed into and subsequently died on. The other three catch up to the sight of the accident, where they find a very distraught Mrs. Markway. Finally the three leave the house separately, with Dr. Markway implying that Eleanor was what the house wanted after all, confirmed by the bodiless voice of Eleanor speaking on behalf of the house with the closing words, “…And we who walk here…walk alone.”

The acting in this film is absolutely superb. I especially love Julie Harris, who plays Eleanor. Eleanor’s character is stunted; having been forced to care for her mother for the last 10 years. This period of 10 years affects every aspect of her character; she longs to be alone, and to have her own belongings, but at the same time, she’s terrified of it. Additionally she dreams of being somewhere she belongs, and will fight tooth and nail to hold onto that. She’s also very insecure. What’s great about Harris is that she carries this role superbly, demonstrating all aspects of this character, which serves as the focal point of the movie. Equally good is Claire Bloom, who plays Theo. Bloom stupendously displays, the spiteful character of Theo’s character. Theo is a woman who knows what everyone is thinking at all times, and wants everyone to know it. She loves feeling special, and she feels that the best way to portray this is by spitefully toying with Eleanor who is emotionally unstable; in effect she pushes all of her own insecurities onto Eleanor. The dichotomy of these two characters is outstanding. The desire for acceptance of the part of Eleanor, and Theo’s need to mock Eleanor act as opposing forces, and results, due to Eleanor’s emotional issues, to Theo driving Eleanor more rapidly into insanity as she gets enraptured by the house.

Luke was excellent. In today’s film he would be the cliché “funny man” which you expect to go first, and it is true that he is rather annoying, and that his jokes fall flat, but this is the point, and displays the greater degree of his flaws. Luke is rich, pampered, greedy, and a glutton. Luke’s actor, Russ Tamblyn does an excellent job portraying this. I also liked both of the male leads. Dr. Markway essentially plays the straight man of the movie. His character is driven by an obsession to legitimize his field of research – paranormal studies. While for a time this drive causes him to let Eleanor stay in the house in spite of her very obvious issues, I didn’t really see it, and other than that, he never seems to show a character. I think this works, however. Dr. Markway serves as the straight man, he is (relative) normalcy, and allows us to see the insanity of Eleanor and Theo, and the deep seated character flaws of Luke.

The directing in this film is absolutely the best. The cinematography of this film is fantastic. There are so many great shots in this film. Robert Wise does a great job in his filming style. I love the top-down shots looking down on our actors; I also like his use of minimalism in shooting, not ever showing the ghost or monster or whatever that is causing all of the commotion. There is no campy display of things moving. All of this shows a director which knows full well that it is not the monster itself which cases the audience to be afraid, but the thought of the monster which causes the true terror. There are a number of other great scenes, such as the scene of the camera travelling rapidly from the tower of the house down to the balcony where Eleanor is standing. The scene in which the door of the room in which the four are staying moves inwardly as if it were made of rubber is an absolutely fantastic scene. Another thing I like about Wise is his great patience. Like Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wise knows damn well when he has you, and he chooses those times to take his time in showing something happening. This happens, for example, with door handles turning, or when Dr. Markway is ascending a very rickety spiral staircase. You the audience feel for sure that something is going to happen, and so Wise teases you by drawing the scene out as long as he possibly can.

Another thing I love about this movie is the manner in which the story is told. While Wise tells you what’s going on through picture, the story is driven by Eleanor’s thoughts. This is great way of telling the story as we can both visibly see and hear the growing insanity of Eleanor as she becomes more and more delusional. What’s great is that by showing us all of Eleanor’s thoughts, Wise is in essence driving the audience to think in a like manner to Eleanor. This means that the audience is drawn into the insanity of Eleanor, allowing Wise to display the “horrors of the house” in a very ambiguous manner, without the audience being any the wiser. It is only in retrospect that you the viewer realizes that the “ghost” could have just as easily been all in your head, as it may have been all in Eleanor’s head. Wise is a clever, clever man.

Another piece of added depth to this film which I only recently realized is that the four central characters of this film each represent one or two of the seven deadly sins. Eleanor represents Lust, as she lusts after Dr. Markway. She also represents Envy as she envies Mrs. Markway, who has Dr. Markway’s love, and later as she envies what she presumes is the house claiming Mrs. Markway over her. Theo represents Pride as she is proud over her unique abilities (and demonstrates this by showing off her abilities unnecessarily). She also represents wrath as she lashes out at Eleanor repeatedly throughout the film. Luke represents Gluttony and Greed. Finally, Dr. Markway represents Pride as his vainglory prevents him from caring for his wards in the house, and he also represents Sloth as he intimates that rather than putting his exceptional abilities into a useful profession, he selects the research of the supernatural out of spite of his family. The fact that the movie can so artfully lace these facets into the film makes this great movie all the greater.

This movie is superb, one of my favorites out of this list so far. What upsets me is just how unsung this movie is. This movie won no Oscars; no Golden Globes, no nothing. When you ask friends if they’ve seen Casablanca or Citizen Kane, the vast majority will say yes (if they’re movie savvy); when you ask them if they’ve seen this movie, not only have they usually never seen it, often they’ve never even heard of it. This to me is very disappointing as in my opinion in terms of storytelling and cinematography; I would consider it to be on par with the Casablancas and Citizen Kanes of film. This is simply a fantastic movie, and I am happy that I saw it when I did, and considering this “unsung movie” went on to influence the not unsung classics of The Shining and Poltergeist; it definitely deserves its place on the list, and perhaps a place that is outlined in gold marker.

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