This Distracted Globe random header image

A House Born Bad

July 4th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Haunting 1963 Claire Bloom Julie Harris Russ Tamblyn

In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …

Haunting 1963 poster Haunting 1963 dvd

The Haunting (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise
Screenplay by Nelson Gidding, based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Produced by Robert Wise
112 minutes

While The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both inspired remakes that dragged great sci-fi concepts out into the deep end of the pool, Robert Wise’s The Haunting has always occupied those waters, lurking in an elegant cool that’s unique among cinema’s ghost stories. Wise came upon a book review of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in 1957 and was apparently so spooked reading a copy on the MGM lot that screenwriter Nelson Gidding made the director jump when he burst into Wise’s office. Put in turnaround by United Artists, Wise was able to interest MGM in the property, but was offered a budget short of the amount he needed. Discovering that MGM-British Studios was willing to financing the film to the tune of $1.1 million– roughly $6.7 million in today money — Wise shot The Haunting outside London on soundstages at Borehamwood.

The Haunting is a reminder of a time when movies couldn’t count on gore, much less the color red, to scare an audience. Tension is achieved through performance and atmosphere. Julie Harris plays one of the all-time great nutters, a woman who’s been poked with so much psychic trauma that spirits in the mansion seem friendly by comparison. Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn roll through the delicious dialogue while managing to approach the material seriously. Collaborating with director of photography Davis Boulton, Robert Wise shot the film — his last in black & white — with anamorphic lenses by Panavision that seem to peek around corners. Without the money to showcase ghosts, the filmmakers embrace psychological horror and leave it to the audience to decide what’s real and what’s not, giving The Haunting mystique while tightening up its suspense.

Haunting 1963 title card

Seeking a site to pursue his life’s work in the study of psychic phenomena, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) arrives on Hill House, a remote New England manor built 90 odd years previous by Hugh Crain as a home for his wife and daughter, both of whom would die there under unusual circumstances. Sharing their fate would be Crain’s second wife, as well as a caretaker, who hung herself from a spiral staircase in the library. Warning him that no one who’s visited Hill House has stayed for more than a few days, its current deed holder Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton) is intrigued by whether life truly exists after death. She agrees to lease the house to Dr. Markway for his experiment on the condition that her foppish nephew Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) — next in line to inherit the mansion — be included.

Dr. Markway’s research team consists of the tightly wound Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and the cosmopolitan Theodora (Claire Bloom). Eleanor experienced paranormal activity as a child, while Theo is a skilled psychic. Luke has no truck with the supernatural and jokes about turning the house into a nightclub. Left alone by the husband-wife caretakers (Valentine Dyall, Rosalie Crutchley) who refuse to enter the house after dark, Eleanor and Theo are terrorized by banging outside their room. Dr. Markway and Luke report hearing no such noises. The next morning, “Welcome home Eleanor” is found scrawled in chalk above the stairwell. Eleanor becomes obsessed with staying in the house and when Dr. Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) joins the ghost hunters, her jealousy tips her over into madness.

Haunting 1963 Freda Knorr

Haunting 1963 Richard Johnson

Haunting 1963

Haunting 1963 Julie Harris

Haunting 1963 Claire Bloom Julie Harris Rosalie Crutchley

Haunting 1963 Claire Bloom Julie Harris

Haunting 1963 Richard Johnson Claire Bloom Julie Harris Russ Tamblyn

Haunting 1963 Julie Harris

Haunting 1963 Russ Tamblyn Claire Bloom Julie Harris Richard Johnson Lois Maxwell

Haunting 1963 Julie Harris

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 254 users: 86% for The Haunting (1963)

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Paranoia · Supernatural · Woman in jeopardy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob Westal // Jul 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

    I’ve got to see “The Haunting” again soon…

    And b&w widescreen is also my favorite. There’s an odd kind of grandeur to it on the big screenscreen. As for movies, well, you’ve got to do some later Billy Wilder.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Bob: “An odd kind of grandeur” is such a terrific way to summarize what I like about black & white in anamorphic. The style pulls you into the picture, as opposed to acting on you, if that makes any sense. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Stephen // Jul 16, 2010 at 7:24 am

    This is SUCH a great anamorphic film! I remember seeing it projected about 10 years ago and it was gorgeous.

Leave a Comment