Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Haunting

Hissed Air, Bloom N’ Fall

The Haunting
UK/USA 1963
Directed by Robert Wise
HMV/Fopp Exclusive Blu Ray Zone B

A few decades ago, when people used to ask me what my favourite horror movie was and I said The Haunting (even in the days before I had to clarify it with “the original 1963 version of” before hand), I was more often than not met with a response something along the lines of “not heard of that one.” Nowadays, however, I’m pleased to say that the majority of people I answer this too are as aware as I am that this is pretty much the greatest horror movie ever made. It’s reputation has grown in stature to the point that it usually makes most of the important “Top Whatever” film lists, such as the BFI’s corker of collective list-dom, often ranking quite high.

The film is directed by the great Robert Wise who not only edited Citizen Kane for Orson Welles but who directed quite a large number of films in surprisingly diverse genres over the years... you might know him from such films as The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original), West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (again, the original) and even Star Trek - The Motion Picture. He’s made many great films but none of these, to my mind, matches the absolute perfection and entertainment value of The Haunting (although The Day The Earth Stood Still comes quite close).

Out of the two filmed versions of Shirley Jackson’s source novel, The Haunting Of Hill House, this is supposed to be the closer, in tone and spirit, to the original and I know Wise did liaise with Jackson when he started working on it. In fact, he ditched a version of the script where it turns out everything takes place in an insane asylum in the mind of one of the characters because it wasn’t in the book and Jackson disagreed with the idea. While the book is quite chilling and not an awful lot physically happens in terms of things you could put your finger on (from what I remember... it’s been over thirty years since I’ve read it), the film is possibly stripped down even more and, if you want to see a ghost story film where hardly anything is seen but absolutely everything is felt then... this is the film for you.

The Haunting starts off with a voice over narrative intro by Richard Johnson against a shot of the house at night and, even though you might not consciously realise it yet, even that first shot is already working on you as part of the directors constant agenda to distort the audience's perception and keep them off guard as much as the house does the same to the main characters (if you look at the edges of the screen you’ll see the peripherals kind of lean toward the centre in a circular manner... I’ll get back to why that is in a minute). After a brief title sequence over the same shot, Johnson continues his intro as Dr. Markway as he explains to the audience (and a couple of people he is leasing the house from, which you’ll see at the end of this sequence) about the history of Hill House and the deaths that have occurred within its walls. And much in keeping with one of this character’s main traits, it also contains a certain amount of warmth and humour... “Built ninety odd... very odd... years ago...”. This history of the house sequence includes a horse going into a frenzy at a certain place by a tree in the grounds (an event which will, in some ways, come back to haunt one of the cast members right near the end of the movie) and a woman who ascends the spiral staircase of hill house with a rope on a plate.

One of the things Wise does throughout the film when he wants to disorient the audience (or disorient them even more, that is) is to use fast moving camera panning around everywhere and using things like whip pans and other tricks to really hit the feeling of a lack of control. Even in this opening history lesson we are treated to such things and a lovely piece of shot design ending with a fast camera movement is truly great. We are looking down from just above the young lady ascending the stairs with the rope and climbing with her (the camera was fixed to the rail built for it when the staircase was constructed) but we then pan to the left of the stairs looking down as she walks up past the camera. The next thing we know, her legs swing in to shot as it is made abundantly clear she has hung herself... the camera then rapidly descends back down the path of the spiral staircase at great speed (probably enhanced in the edit, I should think). Gorgeous stuff.

After, we see Markway granted access to the house, as long as he is lumbered with future owner Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn as the film’s big sceptical character) and he picks his ‘guests’. We then see a teeny bit of the back story of just one of those guests, Eleanour... played, really brilliantly (as they all are in this) by Julie Harris. We get a glimpse of her personal ‘sensitive nature’ as a sister who has had to look after her dying mother for a number of years and who now seems somehow at a loss after she has nobody to look after. She steals her sister's car and makes the journey, at Markham’s invitation, to Hill House. Of the ‘guests’ in the house, she is the only one who is given any real back story and it’ll become clear why later, especially since Markway chose her because she had a strange ‘poltergeist incident’ with hail stones as a young girl.

When she gets to the house, after a run in with Valentine Dyall as Mr. Dudley the groundskeeper, she meets Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) who shows her to her room in a most eerie performance. Starting off totally silent and evading all questions, when she gets Eleanour to her room she suddenly goes into her introductory spiel and the contrast between stark silence and a high speed volley of rules and regulations from a character who looks quite ‘haunted house gothic’, is a nice addition to proceedings. There’s a brilliant shot here when Elanour first arrives and puts her briefcase down and it’s one of many in a film which is filled with beautiful compositions. As she goes to pick her briefcase up off the floor, we have a shot from her point of view looking down at the floor with the briefcase at an angle filling the left of the screen and her face reflected, along with the lights from the ceiling, in the highly polished floor next to it. Again... beautiful stuff.

After this, Eleanour meets Claire Bloom’s character, Theodora, who we later find out is psychic. Right from when we meet her she says things which allow the audience to unravel the kind of person she is... by giving foreshadowing to her highly sensitive flashes of people and things... “you wear your thoughts on your sleeve”... as well as playing up the lesbian overtones of her character and her attraction to Nell (her pet name for Elanour). Actually, the sexuality of Theo’s character was originally going to be much more specific and overt with a back story scene for her too, with her splitting up and leaving her girlfriend at the start of the movie but, apparently, the censors didn’t like the idea so Robert Wise decided to cut it. I don’t know if it had actually been shot or not before that decision was made.

After this, the girls meet Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markway and Russ Tamblyn’s Luke where it’s explained that, because of Eleanour and Theo’s past brushes with the world of the supernatural, they and a few others who dropped out, were selected to research the supernatural occurrences of Hill House. Pretty soon after, when everyone goes to bed, we get the first of the film’s ghostly and, if it’s the first time you’ve seen the film... very unsettling, supernatural ‘attacks’. Actually, if you’ve seen the movie before, the use of sound design coupled with the camera work is still pretty chilling even when you know what’s coming.

Lets look at this a little then. Why is this such an effective film?

Well, we are told that Hill House is a house that doesn’t make sense. Doors all shut themselves, no room is a natural rectangle and all the angles 'don’t quite add up'. There are cold patches in various places and this is visibly demonstrated in certain scenes with little things like the shivering of a plant in a wind where there is no draught or the visible breath of Luke when he sits in a certain spot.

Now then, I said at the start that even the first shot of the house is a little out of kilter and the reason this is so is because Wise went to the photography department and asked to use a specific lens and camera... the 30mm, anamorphic, wide angle Panavision camera... which wasn’t in use yet as it was still being developed. He had a look through and looked at the way it curved all the peripherals ‘in’ slightly and asked to use this to help him create a personification of the distortion of Hill House... and he even had to sign a waiver when he got it, to say he understood that the lens was imperfect. And the imperfection of the lens is absolutely perfect for a film about a house as a character in its own right. There are some nice things which happen when, as he does in this, he pans the camera around an interior. If you follow a piece of scenery or prop around with your eyes as it travels from one side of the screen to another, you can see it straighten up and then bend itself back the other way as the lens does its thing. Added to the imposing interiors and unusual and slightly uncomfortable set dressing, such as a statue of a woman’s face with a veil over it, her features barely visible through the marble... this lens was just the ticket for the tight, claustrophobic and vaguely unsettling feel the director was going for here.

Combined with the sound in the supernatural scenes, it really comes into its own.

For instance, Wise is able to completely spook his audience by doing things like having the ghostly, almost aggressively conversational noises of the ghosts of Hill House coming into the foreground as the camera pans slowly across the wallpaper in Elanour and Theo’s bedroom, tweaking the pattern slightly and lighting it in such a way that the audience can fill in a hidden face which isn’t really there but... oh, yes it is because that’s one of the things the human brain does best... constructs hidden faces where there aren’t any. And another great trick is to switch the camera around suddenly from third person to first person view, disorienting the audience and making an audio connection which gives a certain personification to the unseen presence. For instance, Elanour shouts “It’s against the top of the door!”... and then we immediately cut to a shot of the two ladies huddled in bed, looking down at them from the top of the door.

And the whole film is like this... an unassailable, almost passive aggressive assault on the senses by Wise’s view of the story as much as the house is deliberately weakening the minds of the people inside. And that is what it’s doing because it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise that Hill House has an agenda for these characters... or one character in particular, at any rate... and it even uses distraction techniques to force the sets of inhabitants apart from each other at one point.

Even in its more relaxed moments, the film is a tour de force of beautifully composed, manipulative film making. There’s a lovely shot where Elanour and Dr. Markway are talking and the perspective is crashed together to give a marvellous effect with Markway’s head in close up on the right of the screen while the top half of Elanour and her torso is filing the left of the screen... these two protagonists facing each other compositionally from different distances from the camera while not necessarily looking at each other at all.

The Haunting is quite remarkable and a film which I try to come back to as often as possible and I’m glad I do because, even though I’ve seen the picture a number of times (well into double figures), I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, this time around. I quite like Humphrey Searle’s, sadly lost, score to the movie but the early back story scene with Elanour fighting out her right to leave the rest of her family is something I’ve always considered almost comically overscored. Honestly, the music here is unwieldy and plays against the scene it is supposed to be illustrating quite badly. However, this time around I saw (and I can’t believe this was the first time I’d noticed this) that when the music stops, you can just make out Elanour switching off something which is not actually on the screen... so all these years I’ve thought I’d been listening to tragically awful underscoring in that scene, it turns out to have a diegetic source of a radio out of shot. This explains a lot.

If you’ve not figured it out by now, the original 1963 production of Robert Wise’s The Haunting gets a huge recommendation from me and this latest viewing does nothing to discourage me from  adhering to my notion that it’s the greatest horror movie ever made. Definitely watch this one if you’ve not seen it before... it’s a truly amazing ghost story.

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