Silver Screen Standards: The Haunting (1963)
If anyone tries to tell you that old horror movies aren’t scary, The Haunting (1963) is there to prove them wrong. This terrifying adaptation of the novel by Shirley Jackson still has plenty of chills and thrills to offer modern audiences, even though it never shows a single monster or so much as a drop of blood. Directed by Robert Wise, who got his start working on horror with Val Lewton at RKO, The Haunting was remade in 1999 and reimagined as a hit television series in 2018, but the original holds up as one of the best, creepiest, most atmospheric horror movies ever made.
Julie Harris leads a small ensemble cast as lonely, hypersensitive Eleanor Lance, who jumps at the chance to stay at Hill House in order to escape her buried life as the barely tolerated tenant of her sister. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an English anthropologist, has organized the visit in order to prove the existence of the supernatural; his other recruit is the sexy and supposedly psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom), with the Hill House heir, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) along to become better acquainted with his future property. All of them get more than they bargained for when the strange forces that lurk inside the house begin to stir and then run wild through the shadowy corridors.
The intense terror of the film is achieved through camera angles, subtle hints, and the idea that things we can’t see are always more frightening than things we can. We never see the ghosts of Hill House, but we hear them, see evidence of their presence, and feel their eyes on us in every room. Throughout the house, statues with pale, staring faces watch the visitors, and doors mysteriously lock and unlock or open and close. The jarring camera angles at times look like modern “found footage” horror, especially when Nell makes the dizzying climb up the spiral staircase near the climax of the film. Wise and his cinematographer, Davis Boulton, use lighting, split diopters, a wide-angle anamorphic lens, and the black and white format to fantastic effect, with a few standout moments like the famous buckling door scene punctuating the pervasive feeling of dread like a sudden scream.
The characters enduring this supernatural experience are more or less ordinary people, none of them especially heroic or terrible, but Nell occupies a special place among them as a fragile, perpetual outsider, a lonely soul desperate enough to be lured by the mansion’s sinister siren song. Nell’s girlish crush on Dr. Markway, the first man who has ever made her feel seen, is tragically inevitable, while her confusion over Theodora’s subtler advances creates plenty of tension between the two women. Luke plays the role of the skeptic until Hill House makes him rethink his cavalier attitude, at which point Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell) arrives to have her own skepticism quickly and horribly refuted.
This is not the kind of horror movie that picks off its characters one by one; it’s more interested in turning the screws on living victims, with the deaths of the previous inhabitants presented right at the beginning mostly to set the stage for what comes later. We know how dangerous the house is, but Nell and Theodora don’t, while Dr. Markway naively insists that ghosts are benign, harmless entities incapable of doing real harm to the living. The creepy housekeeper, played with relish by Rosalie Crutchley, warns them early on, but even Nell laughs at her. Eventually, they’ll understand why Mrs. Dudley never stays in the house after dark. “In the night,” she says in parting, “In the dark.” Her final eerie grin suggests that even her daytime hours in the house have wrought a strange effect on the housekeeper’s mind. Those staying overnight will feel the full weight of Hill House’s malevolent power.
For fans of the haunted or old dark house genre, The Haunting is definitely a high point, combining atmosphere with a seriously scary story that never topples over into camp. Earlier examples like The Old Dark House (1932) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) are great fun, but they’re not really meant to linger in the viewer’s nervous imagination after the final scene ends. For more of my favorite atmospheric horror classics, try Island of Lost Souls (1932), Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), or The Uninvited (1944). If you dream of spending the night in Hill House yourself, you’re in luck; the location for the exterior used in the movie is Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where you can book a room for about 200 pounds a night. Just watch out for things that go bump in the night… in the dark.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.