FANGO Flashback: “THE HAUNTING” (1963)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
While there had certainly been many haunting films previous to 1963, there were few that were ever taken as seriously as Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING. There had been the William Castle fare that had done boffo at the box office but had been overshadowed by its over-the-top promotional tools. There had also been many haunted house films that never quite locked down the art of horror, delivering the sheet-laden ghosts and floating-by-string objects that have become associated with that classic era of fright fare. But THE HAUNTING was one of the first horror films to truly chill audiences to the bone, with an innovative and understated approach that played with what audiences may or may not have seen.
In fact, it’s exactly those mindgames that Robert Wise plays through his camerawork and blocking, using tricks right in front of our eyes before indulging in anything outwardly creepy. That doesn’t mean Wise, a director who didn’t quite frequent the horror genre, didn’t know how to do straightforward scares; in fact, the film’s most iconic moments are those of traditional terror, such as the bending door and the sudden appearance of a character in a trap door. Yet Wise was also brilliant enough to play with perspective and put us in the head of a medium, which gives the film such a brilliant visual structure and allows the viewer to feel her rapidly escalating unease.
For those unfamiliar, THE HAUNTING follows four people who decide to investigate the notoriously haunted Hill House, including a steadfast paranormal investigator, a smarmy heir-to-be, a psychic and a medium with a history of paranormal experiences. Unfortunately, the medium is also not of sound mind, traumatized by the loss of her overbearing mother and prone to social anxiety. Not long after their arrival, strange, hard-to-explain occurrences begin to arise, but is the house truly haunted, and if so, what does it want from its new inhabitants?
Wise, working from a script by Nelson Gidding, really makes the most of what he had at his disposal; THE HAUNTING feels like a big, engrossing haunted house film from start to finish. Yet it’s the intimacy that the film has with its characters that makes the film so absolutely… well, haunting. Scenes like the “hand-grabbing” sequence are made unbearably intense by how personal in nature the scene is, and how much we’ve already gotten to know the characters and their inner thoughts (which ultimately makes the pay-off that much more gratifying). And by staying intimate, THE HAUNTING makes exceptional use of its score as well, allowing quiet scenes to punctuate the tension at hand and putting the music to good use during descents into madness.
THE HAUNTING also provided stronger performances than some might have associated with the genre at the time, especially Julie Harris whose frenzied work as the perturbed medium is gripping and fascinating. Additionally, Claire Bloom’s understated performance as the psychic is very impressive, as well as the excellent Richard Johnson as the investigator and the wonderful Russ Tamblyn in full air-head mode as the heir. And special notice should also be given to Lois Maxwell as the investigator’s skeptical wife, whose bravado-laden performance takes a wicked and great turn guaranteed to shake viewers up.
Overall, it’s incredibly impressive that THE HAUNTING remains a stunning cinematic feat, especially with the leaps and bounds made to the haunted house subgenre in the past few years. By making a character-driven film that focuses on placing you in the shoes of someone going insane, the scary moments are even more frightening, especially because they’re not to be trusted. Perhaps it might be disappointing that Wise didn’t follow this with more work in the genre, but for what it’s worth, having one genuine horror classic under your belt is better than having a career’s worth of mediocre fright fare.