Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Haunting (1963)

An intelligent, atmospheric gothic horror film, adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House", about a New England manor that is possessed by the tortured spirits of its past inhabitants. Julie Harris delivers a strong and nuanced performance as the sad, tormented Eleanor Lance, who is called to take part in a paranormal research project at the house, and who gradually descends into hysteria as a result of what she encounters there. Equally effective in their parts are Richard Johnson as the somewhat overzealous paranormal investigator Dr. Markway, Claire Bloom as the mysterious Theo, possessed with ESP abilities, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke, the sarcastic skeptic of the group.

Robert Wise's direction shows the influence of his time spent working with Val Lewton's B-horror unit at RKO in the '40s, leaving the supernatural goings-on entirely to the audience's imagination, and borrowing heavily from Lewton's approach of using shadows and sound to conjure up effects far more horrifying than any on-screen depictions would be. Generally, the choice works here, but is perhaps less powerful than it could be, as it grows increasingly ineffective through repetition as the characters are menaced by off-screen wailing and pounding. Alternately, Wise seems unwilling to explore further the possibilities of the horror being purely psychological, the result of Eleanor's past experiences, rather than something explicitly supernatural.

Still, it's undeniably an expertly-directed and splendidly-mounted production, with a really fine cast and exceptional production design. Wise's endlessly creative and skillful use of the screen space is particularly admirable, moving the characters deftly through the cavernous, looming layout of the manor house in such a way that is both logical and yet disorienting in its perspective, greatly aided by the tight editing and sharp, deep focus photography.

Seen 10/25/14 at Loew's Jersey in a nice 35mm print.

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