The Haunting


Day three of my own little Robert Wise Film Festival

Somewhere along the way, Hollywood forgot how to tell a ghost story. It happened without much fanfare, so I can’t say when, but certainly the success of Halloween had something to do with it. That isn’t to begrudge John Carpenter his success, but it set the pattern for the modern horror film that has since calcified into rote repetition. Any form of psychological terror has been jettisoned in favor of a geek show spectacle of masked super-killers leaping out of the shadows to disembowel horny teenagers.

The emergence of the PG-13 horror film recent years, much be-moaned by the gore-hounds, has restored some of my hope that the traditional ghost story might make a comeback. However, except for The Others, The Sixth Sense and possibly The Ring, there hasn’t been much to cheer about in that regard.

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The Haunting is a faithful adaptation of the classic Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Aside from a couple of name changes, it remains true to the source in story, theme and tone.

Hill House is foreboding 90-year-old mansion in New England built by a wealthy eccentric named Hugh Crane. People related to Hugh Crane and, by extension, the house have a high mortality rate (something like 100%). Hill House develops what could loosely be called an “unsavory reputation” as being haunted.


John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist who dabbles in studying the supernatural, takes an interest in Hill House. He rents the home with an eye to studying it and possibly proving the existence of the supernatural. To assist him, he invites several people with documented psychic abilities to spend join him. Only two show up, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), or “Nell,” a sheltered woman who has spent her whole adult life caring for a sick mother, and Theodora (Claire Bloom), a young woman with a brassy personality. The fourth member is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the nephew of the current owner and current heir to property. He’s interested primarily in dispelling any rumors of haunting, since they tend to hurt the resale value.

The main focus of the film, and Hill House’s evil intent, is Eleanor and much of how we view Hill House is defined by her internal monologues. Julie Harris’ voiceovers are a bit over used, perhaps, but combined with the moody and creative cinematography, it helps create an effective sense of foreboding.

Like any great ghost story, The Haunting creates its best special effects in the mind of its audience. This film does more to create tension or apprehension with a turning doorknob or an off-kilter camera angle than most modern horror films do with gallons of fake blood and CGI.

At the time, one of the more daring aspects of both the novel and this film is subtle but unmistakable signs that Theo’s interest in Eleanor goes beyond mere friendship. These days, of course, when lesbianism is almost a fashion statement, the coy and indirect approach to Theo’s sexuality could seem almost quaint, but often there is more eroticism in suggestion than there is in explicit detail. Given Nell’s sheltered life, Theo’s attempts at seduction seem almost predatory but it serves the story well, keeping Nell off-balance and increasing her sense of vulnerability.

If the only version of The Haunting you’ve seen is the loud and vapid Jon DeBont adaptation from 1999, you owe yourself a viewing of this far superior film.

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