The Haunting (1963)

Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris) is a meek, tormented woman who spent the entirety of the past eleven years caring for her invalid mother until her recent passing. Left with seemingly no real purpose in life, barely anywhere to stay and only half a car to her name, Nell jumps at the chance to partake in a study focusing on people with histories of paranormal occurrences staying at the notoriously haunted Hill House. The only other candidate is the far more free-spirited Theo (Claire Bloom), and the two are joined by the scientist running the experiment, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) and the sceptical future heir to the building, Luke (Russ Tamblyn). Upon arriving at the house, however, it becomes clear to Nell that she is meant for more than just an experiment, and the house itself may have other plans for her.
the haunting theo nell
The Haunting is the Movie of the Month over at the LAMB this month. It’s a first time watch for me, and in fact a film I knew precious little about before this viewing, other than a few elements that occur in the remake (more on this later). Having now seen it I can say that many elements were familiar to me, mainly because I watched Scary Movie 2 a lot growing up, and the 1999 remake is one of the films from which heavy inspiration was taken to produce the parody sequel.
the hauntign markway
The most remarkable aspect of the original The Haunting has to be the sheer level of creepy atmosphere obtained without the use of almost any special effects. Aside from one scene late on when a part of the house moves in a manner that shouldn’t be possible, nothing actually appears out of the ordinary. This film doesn’t do much to actually scare us, the audience, instead it’s intent is to scare the characters, and make us feel uncomfortable due to the level of fear they convey. Hence we’re shown very little of what is apparently scaring the characters, instead we focus more on their reactions and heightened emotions caused by what they’re experiencing. In some cases this is quite effective, but given the film is regarded as one of the scariest – or at least, creepiest – movies of all time, I found myself wanting in the chills’n’thrills department.
haunting mrs dudley
In fact, the only times I came close to being genuinely creeped out were courtesy of Hill House’s caretaker and housekeeper, the Dudleys (Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall). Mrs Dudley in particular was wonderfully unsettling, with her rehearsed speech for any newcomers, pointedly explaining that she and her husband don’t stick around after dark, that no-one lives nearer than the distant town, and no-one will hear them at night, without ever letting on as to why anybody would be crying for help in the first place. Her slight, malevolent grin as she parts with this information made her brief appearances all the more delicious.
the haunting statue
As for the rest of the cast, Julie Harris is very good in the lead role, although there’s slightly too much reliance on her internal monologue to explain exactly what she’s going through. To be fair, her character is put through the wringer even before the film has begun, so it’s no surprise that her reaction to the unusual goings-on is far from normal. The other main cast members all fill their roles well, even if they are perhaps a little thinly drawn in terms of stereotypes – Theo is stylish and sexually confident; Luke a flippant, drunken cad; Markway more bookish and fatherly, making the evident attraction between him and Eleanor more than a little uncomfortable.
the haunting house
Whilst the production design and cinematography are fantastic, I did find some of the camerawork to unintentionally give away the end of a scene, which could just be due to my having seen many films that have taken inspiration from this 55-year old film, which is hardly a fault of The Haunting, but marred my viewing nonetheless. I’ve never been much of a score guy, so evidently I also missed how atmospheric the music is supposed to be here. Perhaps if I’d seen this in a packed theatre on an autumn evening my experience would have felt more appropriately overbearing and intense, but alas watching it in my pyjamas on a Saturday morning, with the volume not loud enough to wake my sleeping wife in the room above led to a less than satisfactory experience.

Choose Life 7/10

However disappointed I may have been with the original, it’s a 10/10 nailed-on masterpiece compared to the 1999 remake. Other than some spot-on casting (Lili Taylor as Nell, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo, Liam Neeson as Dr. Marrow, the stand-in for Markway, and Bruce Dern as Mr. Dudley) this is easily one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time.
the haunting 1999 eyes
Whilst the original is lauded for its effective scares without the need for effects, the remake has difficulty going 10 minutes without some ludicrous late 90s CGI monstrosity making the film a laughing stock. Whether it’s a giant statue coming to life to briefly attack Neeson, a giant cartoon hand emerging from a doorway to push Taylor around or a pair of giant church-style windows becoming enormous animated eyes, it’s difficult to believe this wouldn’t have caused eye rolls and guffaws even upon initial release, when the CGI might not have appeared so terrible. Avoid at all costs.

Choose Life 3/10

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2 thoughts on “The Haunting (1963)

  1. We’ll disagree on the 1963 version. I think it’s a masterpiece, and a hell of a film in terms of scares when you consider it’s rated G. It’s all about the atmosphere.

    I haven’t seen the remake. I thought I had, but it turns out I was thinking of the trainwreck-ish remake of The House on Haunted Hill.

    • Alas, I had to sacrifice a little atmosphere to get the film watched in time for the LAMB’s Movie of the Month show. I imagine in a theatre it’d be very effective though.

      Avoid the remake as well as you can, although I do enjoy the House on Haunted Hill remake for being a bit of silliness, with pretty much everyone involved fully understanding the kind of film they’re in.

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