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Review: The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963)

Directed by: Robert Wise

Premise: Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. A doctor studies paranormal phenomena at a haunted mansion in rural New England.

What Works: The Haunting is among the best regarded supernatural films ever produced and it remains an interesting, scary, and even provocative movie. The film focuses on Nell, played by Julie Harris, a nervous woman who has recently lost her mother and volunteers to be a part of a paranormal experiment. Harris is terrific in the role, playing it with an intensity that makes the haunting and her emotional turmoil convincing but also a fragility that makes her vulnerable. The film also has an impressive supporting performance by Claire Bloom as Theo, a manipulative woman who may have psychic abilities. There is a lot of psychosexual subtext in the film, especially between Theo and Nell, and this is especially fun to watch. It may be difficult to appreciate now but in 1963 when The Haunting was made much of the innuendo was cutting edge and on the threshold of what a Hollywood picture could get away with. Decades later the edginess is diminished but it comes across as smartly underplayed, like much of the rest of the film, and it adds depth to the characters and their relationships. The Haunting is most notable for its atmosphere and director Robert Wise and his cinematographer Davis Boulton find ways of creating a sense of the uncanny. The camera is often set at unusual angles and the black and white imagery utilizes light and shadow very effectively. The soundtrack has comparable techniques with thuds and other sounds echoing in the darkness. These fairly simple cinematic decisions by the filmmakers make The Haunting a great example of the intense fear that can be evoked from well-placed lights, clever sounds, and an effective performance. One of the other enduring qualities of The Haunting is its ambiguity. Nothing about the supernatural is manifested outright and whether Theo actually has psychic powers or if there is even a haunting at the mansion remains elusive through the conclusion of the film. This suits the picture as The Haunting is really about Nell and her gradual descent into madness and despair and the depiction of her growing instability is far more frightening than most special effects.

What Doesn’t: The very things that make The Haunting a classic are also likely to frustrate some contemporary viewers. Although it breaks from the styles of many Hollywood films of its time, The Haunting is slower and quieter than more recent films. These qualities are the reason why The Haunting has become a classic and continues to thrive in the decades since its original release but it is understandable that viewers raised on fast editing and pounding soundtracks would get impatient with the film. The Haunting may also frustrate contemporary viewers because of its ambiguity. Aside from noisy filmmaking, the other cinematic style that viewers have been conditioned to expect is the closed ending with concrete answers. The filmmakers of The Haunting tease at a ghostly presence in the house with shadows, camera movements, and sound effects but at no point does the film give itself over to a definite or even tangible conclusion. That ambiguity is also integral to The Haunting’s enduring power and the respectable regard with which the filmmakers treat the audience is admirable. But even granting that, the ending is a bit of a letdown since it does not really bring the elements of the story to a conclusion.

DVD extras: Commentary track, essay, image gallery, trailer.

Bottom Line: The Haunting is a classic horror film. Because it depends on insinuations and suggestions, this film has aged very well and its influence can be seen in more recent films like The Others and Paranormal Activity.

Episode: #411 (October 28, 2012)