Review: The Haunting (1963)

After watching Friday the 13th Parts 1-3 (1980, 1981, 1982 respectively) and witnessing the body count stack up well before we ever see Jason Voorhees don the famous hockey mask, I decided to take a retro trip down horror memory lane (you know the one, it has over-hanging trees and a creepy caretaker who tells you to turn back) and return to one of the earliest but creepiest haunted house films, The Haunting (1963).

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In stunning black and white Panavision, the film was directed by the incomparable Robert Wise. Right after shooting West Side Story (1961) and two years before The Sound of Music (1965), Wise was always an artist behind the camera first and foremost, and the horror trickery and innovation is what immediately stands out on returning to this classic. It is clear that Wise must have had fun making this film, experimenting with new technology in the form of infra-red film and 30mm lens for the ghostly panning shots and low-angle camera takes which can be seen throughout.

The story is what we’ve come to expect from the haunted house genre. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, brings together a group of people  to investigate a suspected haunted house by gathering and  recording evidence in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. Stage actress Julie Harris plays the susceptible Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a woman who is uniquely touched by the possible spirits within the house. In a ground-breaking role, Claire Bloom is Theodora or ‘Theo’ and is generally thought of as being the one of the first lesbian characters in Hollywood cinema. Though sanctioned by the film studios to keep the evidence of her sexual orientation to a minimum, to the contemporary viewer, it is harder to ignore. And as Nostalgia Critic,  Doug Walker explains, it even adds to the tension of the film. As Nell becomes increasingly enamoured with Dr. Markway and the house itself, Theo beings to show a slight hint of jealousy. When Nell and Theo are locked together in their bedroom, the tension of the scene goes beyond the fear of the paranormal, but the fear of the unknown in terms of their relationship with one another, platonic or otherwise. Walker goes on to say: “…it is hinted that Theo might be a lesbian, and the reason they don’t come out and just say it is because it adds to the tension between her and Eleanor [Nell]. See, for half of the movie they are the only ones in the room together and when the only person you can cuddle up to may or may not have the hots for you it makes the scene a little bit more uncertain and therefore uncomfortable.”

The film takes the usual twists and turns, slowly making each character more suspicious of one another and ramping up the spookiness until the final act of the film. What starts off as a pleasant stay (well, free food and board sounds pleasant enough to me anyway!) at a beautiful country house soon turns into a psychological nightmare of a place where all your fears and doubts are amplified. Indeed right until halfway through the film, Nell is still convinced she is there for a relaxing holiday regardless of the success of the study, but is soon traumatised by her grave past and collapses into a nervous breakdown. What makes this film stand out from the numerous haunted house pictures that thrilled audiences in this era is that we are never quite sure if what Nell has seen is genuine or if we are witnessing is just the manifestations of her own tortured psyche. Since all the spooky happenings are directed at her or are in her presence, we can never be certain of their validity. While this is a perfect get-out clause for the writers,  the lack of explanation ultimately creates an unsettling film which leaves the viewer frustratingly still in the dark by the end of the film.

The Haunting (1963) is an important horror film which ought to be included in any must-see lists for classic horror fans. Like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) released two years before, the horror genre was in flux. No longer able to solely rely on the popularity of the Dracula and Frankenstein outings, filmmakers had to look to within the human psyche to explore what could really frighten us. The Haunting (1963) is a successful experiment in this ideal and remains spooky today. Please whatever you do however, DO NOT watch the horrific 1999 remake of this film. It IS scary, but for none of the right reasons…

Review: Fright Night (1985)

“Nobody wants to see vampire killers any more, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins” says veteran actor Roddy McDowall in the horror comic caper, Fright Night in the scenery-chewing role of Peter Vincent, the hard-on-his-luck TV horror host. And in 1985, he was almost certainly right. The glory days of Hammer Horror had long gone and slasher flicks were filling cinemas and terrifying teens. Fright Night however is a fantastical return to the vampire legends which have passed into the mytharc of horror films for almost as long as film has existed.

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Of course, this being the Eighties, a healthy dose of angst, love and lust was added generously to the mix, presumably striking a synthesized chord with every high-schooler of the time. The brief flash of annoyingly pert movie breasts as the vampiric lothario sets his fangs on his prey would have titillated many teens- in the movie theatre and on devilish late-night telly. Ultimately, Fright Night closes in on what made Hammer Horror so popular in the first place: blood and the potential of a bit o’ skin. Undead or otherwise…

Fright Night begins uniquely enough. Teen Charley (William Ragsdale) begins to suspect his new neighbour is a vampire and sets about trying to drive him out. Reluctantly aided by his ‘frienemy’ Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), the film rattles off every vampire cliché and myth you’ve ever heard of and runs with it. The vampire in question, Jerry Dandridge, played by the gleefully evil Chris Sarandon is smarmy and seductive, and terrifyingly persuasive and charismatic in equal measure. For me, one of the best scenes is in a down-town nightclub where Amy comes dangerously under his spell and her role is transformed as merely the nagging girlfriend into a sexual, rhythmic being. You want her to escape the the villain’s grasp and yet you are also fascinated by the tempting lustful power of evil. And if that doesn’t get you,  then who doesn’t love a good gawp at some terrible Eighties disco fashions…!?

Aside from the good-looking teens, the heart of the film comes from Roddy McDowall. A fading figure of horror; a former movie ‘vampire-killer’, McDowall’s Peter Vincent is firstly motivated by money but ends the film finding faith in the creatures in the night he had for so long parodied and profited from. Brandishing his crucifix once again in the climatic scenes, he finally develops the courage to believe, transforming a meaningless symbol into an effective weapon. Though McDowall is a reliable source of humour throughout the film, a protracted scene in which he witnesses the death of a vampire alone in Charley’s house could easily have been omitted but offers emotional gravitas to a film largely relying on its duty to deliver on scares and playful violence. Speaking of which, the special effects are still impressively unnerving, building on the success of films such as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) and delivering on the real-life gore which would eventually be lost with using CGI entirely.

If you’re looking for a fun, sexy vampire film more likely to tantalise than traumatise, then Fright Night is the film for you. Fright Night‘s director and writer Tom Holland went go on to storyboard the 2011 remake starring Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin and David Tennant as Peter Vincent. As remakes go, it’s fun, but sink your teeth into the original, it might just be to your taste…