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).
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 even adds to the already dialled-up-to-the-max tension in 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.
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.
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 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 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…