In my previous post on Burnt Offerings, I mentioned that haunted house movies were my very favorite subgenre of horror film. I’ve also discussed on more than one occasion my belief that the best horror is achieved through suggestion and subtlety, through the principle of “less is more,” through manipulating the viewer’s (or reader’s) imagination to engineer the scares. I think I’ve also mentioned once or twice (in my entry on The Tenant, for example) that I love ambiguity in horror films, of never being sure if what we’re seeing is really happening to the protagonist or is simply a figment of his/her fevered brain.
In this entry, I’d like to focus on a film that is sort of the ultimate distillation of all of these themes. Even though — at odds with my loose “rules” about posting discussions of better-known movies — this film is generally considered to be one of the scariest ever made, and even though scenes from it have appeared on other lists around the internet, I really, really want to talk about it anyway because it’s probably my favorite horror movie of all time and it’s my blog anyway and SO THERE.
You can complain about having to read this, but no one will hear you. In the night. In the dark.
The 1963 film The Haunting (masterfully directed by Robert Wise) is like the granddaddy of creepy, atmospheric haunted house films that achieve their effect through nothing but insinuation. The movie appears on pretty much every legitimate list of the scariest films ever, but, spoiler alert: IT NEVER SHOWS A THING. There are no phantoms drifting through the hallways, no blood dripping from the walls, no demons leering from the mirrors. That overwhelming feeling of dread you feel as you watch it is entirely down to camera angles, strategic shadows, sound design, and the terrified reactions of the actors.
I will, for a moment, deign to acknowledge that there was an intensely stupid (and Razzie-nominated!) remake of this film in 1999, directed by Jan de Bont. I am only mentioning its vile existence in order to draw a stark contrast with the original. The remake essentially showed EVERYTHING…there were CGI ghosts flitting around everywhere, I think some dragonlike something-or-other flew out of the fireplace at one point (I honestly can’t remember and I refuse to rewatch it to check), there was a big purple mouth in a ceiling or some shit, I really just can’t even. This right here is a cautionary tale: the remake saw everything that was atmospheric and spooky and frightening about the original and took a giant ectoplasmic dump all over it. MOAR GHOSTS!!! MOAR FIRE!!! MOAR MONSTERS!!! CAN WE PUT SLIMER FROM GHOSTBUSTERS IN THERE??? HOW ABOUT A BED THAT’S LIKE A BIG-ASS SPIDER OR SOMETHING??? WHY THE FUCK NOT? HERP DERP. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but as you can tell, the emotions are still a little raw. So let’s just go back to forgetting that festering pile of feces pieces ever got made and get on with the good stuff, shall we?
Seriously? Just knock it off.
The Haunting was of course based on Shirley Jackson’s spectacular 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which I heartily recommend. Stephen King rightly chose it as one of the best horror novels of all time, and discusses its themes at length in a chapter of his 1980 book Danse Macabre. The 1963 film hews very closely to the plot of the book. It’s a fairly standard haunted-house type of story: Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is doing a paranormal investigation of the infamous Hill House, which has been the scene of many mysterious deaths and creepy happenstances since it was built. Joining his ghostbusting posse are heir-to-the-owner Luke Sanderson (played by Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame), free-spirited lesbian psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom), and sheltered, mentally unstable poltergeist focus Eleanor (Julie Harris). Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) joins the fun later on in the film.
Elevating the story from a run-of-the-mill spooky-house romp into an artful masterpiece of terror are not only the gorgeous cinematographic flourishes, but also the layers of uncertainty surrounding the character of Eleanor, and the way her own past seems to mirror that of the dreadful house. She is summoned to the investigation by Dr. Markway because of an incident in her youth where stones fell on the roof of her house in an apparent poltergeist attack, though she never experienced paranormal activity again until arriving at Hill House. Eleanor herself is intensely reflective, perhaps even self-absorbed, and insecure to an almost monstrous degree. She is working through her feelings of guilt and inadequacy following the death of her mother, who she had wiled away years of her life caring for. Because Hill House’s history boasts a similar situation of a suicidal companion, Eleanor feels an immediate affinity with the house, and senses that her destiny is there, and that she has “come home.” The house, for its part, seems to play upon this connection she feels, as Eleanor becomes the main focus of the activity. There is banging on the walls that reminds her of the way her mother would bang on the walls to call to her, and at one point writing appears on the walls of Hill House, chillingly reading, “Help, Eleanor, come home.” Is the entity in the house using Eleanor for its own nefarious purposes? Or is Eleanor unconsciously projecting her own fears and insecurities onto the house and manifesting an entity that was never really there? The film never takes a stand either way, and this is one of its great strengths.
Filmed in luminous black and white, the whole movie is a study in atmosphere and escalating tension. The vast interior of the house itself is often shot from unsettling angles and skewed perspectives, and there are always eerie shadows populating the corners. There are many, many scenes of skin-crawling dread, but there are really two I’d like to discuss here. In the first, Markway and the two women are downstairs. Luke has come downstairs to raid the bar (as you would), and as he stands there chugging straight out of the bottle (classy), suddenly we see (and hear) a door slam by itself. All four of our heroes are naturally wigged out, and as they stand there frightened, wondering what to do, they begin to hear another sound, a sort of strange, windy shuffling that then resolves itself into a steady bang…bang…bang. Like loudly echoing footsteps, coming toward them down the hall. Markway initially thinks it may be his wife Grace wandering the halls (she had been sleeping in the nursery) and goes to open the door, but Luke stops him, saying that the sounds were not coming from anywhere near the nursery. The steady banging gets louder and closer. Eleanor and Theodora are huddled up in blankets on the couch, terrified. The banging is joined by that weird windy noise again. Eleanor thinks to herself (in voiceover), “It knows my name. This time it knows my name.” Markway, fearing that his wife is in danger from whatever is out there, lunges toward the door. Eleanor leaps to her feet to stop him. “NO! NO! It hasn’t hurt me, why should it hurt her?” Markway points out, “She may try to do something about it.” Before Markway can get the door open, though, the noise stops, and he hesitates. Eleanor turns and addresses Theodora. “Is it over, Theo?” Theodora says no, that she still feels cold, and that she senses that “it’s going to start everything all over again.” And sure enough, the next second there comes a volley of metallic-sounding blows on the back of the door that Markway and Luke are still standing in front of. “Don’t let it get in!” Eleanor pleads. Then…silence. Everyone looks at the door, their faces hopeful but still contorted with fear. And then the doorknob begins to rattle, ever so slightly. Luke’s eyes get as big as saucers. Eleanor, her hands clutched in front of her mouth, mews, “Oh God, it knows I’m here!” The doorknob stops rattling, but then the door itself starts to…breathe. There is no apparition, there is no sound other than a slight creaking. There is only that door, bulging weirdly out and then back in. Out, and then back in. It’s such a creepily affecting visual, and so simply done. There is a closeup of Luke’s hand as he drops the liquor bottle on the floor, and then he attempts a little levity by choking out, “Hey Doc. I’ll let you have the house cheap.” There is another moment of silence when they think the terror has passed, but then the banging starts up again, moving across the floor above them this time. All four stare at the ceiling, following the progress of the thing that haunts Hill House. Eleanor thinks that the entity will keep going on until it finds her. Bang…bang…bang…and then there is a strange, sort of rolling metallic sound, almost like thunder but more like someone plowing through pieces of sheet metal. Dr. Markway is staring up at the ceiling and following the sound, and he suddenly knows where the entity is heading. “It’s at the nursery!” he says, and then lunges for the door. Spoiler alert: when they get to the nursery, Grace has disappeared, and we don’t find out what happened to her until the very end (or do we?). Mwahahahaha.
The second scene is even better. It starts with a gorgeous night shot of the exterior of Hill House, accompanied by a creepy soundtrack that sounds sort of like church bells. We pan into Eleanor’s shadowy bedroom, and focus on a sort of raised floral pattern on the wall. Eleanor wakes up and peers over her shoulder at the section of wall. She thinks she hears a man’s muffled chanting coming from behind there, though she can’t make out the words. The camera closes in on the pattern as the voice gets louder, and we start to imagine we can see things in the wall, like a single disapproving eye in the top right corner. In reality there is nothing there, but the way the sequence is shot makes you think there may be. Closer still, and we can almost see another eye, and perhaps even a gaping mouth in the floral pattern. Frightened, Eleanor whispers for Theo, who is sleeping in another bed across the room, though it is too dark for Eleanor to see her. “Are you awake?” she whispers. “Don’t say a word, Theo, not a word. Don’t let it know you’re in my room.” Theo doesn’t answer, but then Eleanor hears a woman’s eerie laugh coming from behind that creepy-ass wall. Eleanor, the covers pulled up to her chin, sticks her hand out into the darkness. “Hold my hand, Theo,” she whispers. “And for God’s sake, don’t scream.” The muffled chanting gets louder, and there’s more of that laughing, and now the pattern on the wall REALLY looks like a horrible face, even though it’s exactly the same pattern as it was before. The noises stop, and Eleanor asks the psychic Theo if it’s over. Then she winces. “You’re breaking my hand!” she says. Then she hears a child crying from behind the wall, and the way the shadows fall on the pattern now makes it clear that there are two eyes and a mouth. She thinks to herself how monstrous and cruel the entity must be, to hurt a child, and how no one should ever do such a thing, and how it’s probably only doing it to scare her but it isn’t succeeding. Then she thinks again that Theo is hurting her hand by squeezing it so tight. She thinks that she will put up with a lot from the house for the sake of the experiment, but that the house hurting a child to get to her is going too far, and she insists she’s going to yell, and indeed, that she does; she screams, “STOP IT!” And then the shot quickly pulls back to show her in her bed, and the lights come on, and there’s a spinning shot across the room to show that Theo is still in her bed across the room, and has just woken up, disoriented. Eleanor gazes down in horror at her hand, which is still extended out and loosely closed, exactly as if someone had been holding onto it. She gets out of bed, still staring, transfixed and disgusted, at her hand. “Oh God,” she says, extending her fingers. “Whose hand was I holding?”
Meeeeeeeeeeep. Think about THAT next time your foot comes out from under the covers in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s true, everybody…THE MONSTERS UNDER YOUR BED WILL GRAB YOUR SHIT IF IT COMES OUT FROM UNDER THE COVERS.
And with that, I bid you adieu. Goddess out.