The Haunting (1963)

“An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”

‘The Haunting’, directed by Robert Wise in 1963, is a claustrophobic horror movie based on a novel by Shirley Jackson. A paranormal investigator, Markway, played by Richard Johnson, negotiates a stay in a rambling old house in New England. As part of his investigation, he takes three guests with him, two of whom: Theodora, played by Claire Bloom, and Eleanor, played by Julie Harris, are psychically sensitive, whilst the third guest, Luke Sanderson, played by Russ Tamblyn, is the prospective inheritor of the mansion. Gradually the house begins to ‘take over’ the vulnerable Eleanor and the dark history of the place starts to bleed into the present. It’s a creepy, meticulously shot movie that, arguably, demonstrates how a paranormal horror movie can still be effective without the cheap jump scares of recent films such as the ‘Insidious’ series. The tension is built slowly, most through sounds. In fact, the soundscape of the film is probably Wise’s greatest achievement, it’s a film that demands to be watched with surround-sound and must have been terrifying in the cinema. The design of the house, and the skewed angles Wise uses to display it, is also crucial to the success of the film. The house becomes a fifth character, albeit a dark and rococo one. The feeling you get is of the human characters being somehow absorbed by the labyrinthine rooms. It’s a tightly packed, economical thriller, and the simple but precise characterisation, particularly of the two female leads, grounds the story and makes the possession narrative all the more frightening, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ made three years before. It’s short, simple but full of memorable sequences and dizzyingly inventive cinematography. It’s also still terrifying over fifty years on.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’d be tempted to contrast it with ‘The Exorcist’, a film that uses the same techniques (though less subtly at times) but reframes the story in a suburban setting.

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