The Haunting

Year: 1963
Production Co: Argyle Enterprises
Studio: MGM
Director: Robert Wise
Writer: Nelson Gidding/Shirley Jackson
Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn

At this point there have been so many iterations of Shirley Jackson's classic I really need to go and buy it to see what's so fascinating about it to many screenwriters and directors. It's possible – like a lot of first ideas after you've already seen decades worth of imitators – that it's nothing special in itself, it just spawned a movement.

The way I've seen it portrayed on screen in at least three different versions so far, it's a very simple nuts and bolts haunted gothic mansion story. The Netflix series tried (successfully as far as I could see, but the show didn't really appeal to me) to stitch it to family tragedy and discord, and even Jan de Bont's reviled 1999 stab at it tried to more closely attach heroine Eleanor to the goings on with a final scene sting.

This film by the immortal Robert Wise might have done the same thing to a lesser or subtler extent, but I found it more about Eleanor's feeling of wanting to belong somewhere after the life she's lived than any pre-existing connection. They're all themes that are undoubtedly found and endlessly reinterpreted in the book.

When we meet her she's a mousy, put-upon spinster living in her sister and brother in law's house in Boston, with their ailing mother only recently having died and Eleanor now tentatively looking forward to a new life of independence, one she's barely brave enough to reach out and grasp.

But it feels like a titanic step into the unknown when an invitation comes from Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) to take part in a paranormal study in a remote mansion called Hill House. Evil is said to permeate the very walls of the secluded mansion after the misfortunes that have befallen the previous inhabitants at the hands of the long dead master of the house, Hugh Crain.

Eleanor arrives at the forbidding house and is shown around by the no-nonsense, very unfriendly housekeeper, a woman who talks about how her and her caretaker husband don't go near the place after dark and that the inhabitants will be on their own.

Arriving soon after is society dame Theodora (Claire Bloom), whom Eleanor forms a gentle attachment to, and party boy Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who's there on a lark. No sooner does the party retire for the first few nights than Hill House comes alive around them, crashing booms ringing out in the night and someone apparently stalking the halls outside the bedrooms.

Eleanor is as terrified as anyone but this is her dream, and she's holding on to it with both hands, refusing to leave. It even feels to her like the dashing Dr Markway is taking more than a professional interest in her.

As the terrifying phenomena mount, they seem to be targeting Eleanor herself, from a blood red painted sign in the hall to her irrational determination that she not leave, even when all their safety seems at risk.

Because of a combination of the year it was made and the number of horror movies you've seen since it's not terribly scary, but Wise managed some imagery that makes it timelessly effective as a moody haunted house yarn. I think it's the most successful of the various iterations of Jackson's novel because it doesn't have ideas above it's station. It's a haunted house chiller and nothing more – maybe the prototype of them all – and is content to weave just enough character development through itself as it needs.

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