Terrifying Tuesday Gets Spooky with The Haunting (1963)

When the Cyber Horror Elite recently voted on the list of films to be considered the Horror Canon, I was very surprised to see that there were a couple of films on the list that I hadn’t seen. One of them was Orphan, but I wont go into that as I’ve already spoken on that HERE. Then there was Ji-woon Kim’s 2003 film A Tale of Two Sisters. I don’t have much love for the Asian films, but I’ve heard other great things about Ji-woon Kim as a director so I will track that down in the future. The last film left unseen, much to my surprise, was an American film from the sixties that had somehow eluded me. I’d seen the weak 1999 remake of The Haunting, and perhaps that’s why I haven’t checked out the original.

The Haunting (1963) was based off the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and unlike it’s 1999 counterpart, this version directed by Robert Wise adheres much more closely to the source material. The story follows Eleanor ’Nell’ Lance (Julie Harris) as she responds to a summons from Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) who is looking for people with experience with the paranormal. Together with psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom), they travel to Hill House to take part in an investigation of its haunted past. Together with the young man who is soon to inherit the house, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), they soon discover that the ghastly history of the house has instilled in it some kind of presence. Eleanor soon becomes sucked in by at the attention she feels she is getting from the house, and she quickly becomes obsessed with becoming a part of it.

If there’s one thing I can say that I always enjoy, it’s a good ghost story, and The Haunting truly hits the mark. I am a great fan of the supernatural in all its many varied forms from movies to shows like Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted (Not Ghost Adventures though, the guys in it always strike me as wanting to beat up a ghost.) In many ways The Haunting seems to be the kind of film that launched a 1000 ghost hunters. All the things you see people looking for on this show are on full display. So you’ve got your loud bangs, far off voices, doors banging shuts, and cold spots. All that’s missing is messing around with an EMF meter to complete the modern ghost hunter’s arsenal.

The most astounding thing about The Haunting is how it makes those little classic haunted house clichés completely creepy. Using only sounds, shadows, and musical cues, Robert Wise, the director of such diverse classics as The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, made Hills House come alive as a living character in the film. Or perhaps an unloving character would be a more apt description. The cinematography was handled by Davis Boulton, and it’s a crime that he didn’t work more. He worked on 1966’s It with Roddy McDowell and the best movie from 1967 that focused on frozen Nazi heads, The Frozen Dead, but in total he only amassed 10 credits for cinematography in his career. His work on The Haunting was astounding. I have to single out a specific moment for how great it is. There is a moment when a door appears to be swelling, almost breathing, and I don’t know how it was done, but it was simply wonderful.

While the star of the show may well be the atmospheric photography, I don’t want to take away from the human stars of the picture. Julie Harris gives a wonderfully manic job as Eleanor, the lonely woman who gets sucked in by the powers of Hill House. While there seems to be evidence of a haunting going on around them, through her voiceover the machinations of her mind unfold in such a way that there seems to be more than hint of insanity in her character. How much of the events occur in her own mind is defiantly left up to some degree of interpretation. It was easy to understand from her performance why her next role was that of Ophelia in the Hamlet. By the halfway point in the film, The Haunting clearly becomes her movie, and through her performance the suspense builds to a fevered pitch through the third act.

When the film begins, it seems that Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markway is being set up to be the main focus of the film, but he never does more than propel the plot along. It was rather interesting when his wife shows up late in the film. I was very surprised to see Lois Maxwell, the one and true Miss Moneypenny, show up in a role where she wasn’t trapped behind a desk. The other really great performance in The Haunting has to be Claire Bloom’s Theodora. She somehow managed to embody this woman who had so much insight into people that she could simultaneously be both Eleanor’s best friend and worst enemy. Bloom gives the character an antagonistic personality while she was gifted at seeing into other people’s minds she lacked any kind of social mask to deal with the knowledge she gained.

This film, along with The Innocents, The Changeling, and The Sentinel, belongs near the top of a shortlist of great supernaturally themed films. I surely don’t have any problem seeing how so many people feel like this was an indispensable piece of the Horror Canon. Thanks to those folks who already love it, I’ve found a new favorite ghostly tale. So if you’re like me and haven’t seen this one, check it out. Also check back her tomorrow when you can check out my review of another Hitchcock classic.

Bugg Rating


  1. This is maybe my favorite horror film of all time. (I put it on my Five Favorite Halloween Films list last year.) Some of this has to do with the novel, which I think is one the greatest pieces of prose I've ever read, with the most KILLER opening paragraph (which the movie duplicates in both it's open and closing narration). Seriously cannot recommend that novel highly enough.

    Glad you finally got to watch this one!

  2. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobAugust 19, 2009 at 7:48 PM

    Did you notice Diane Clare at the beginning? from "plague of the zombies" she was such a gorgeous bird. Julie Harris and claire bloom were pretty tasty as well.


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