Concerning an investigation into the supernatural and presupposing the current boom in all things witnessing the paranormal, Robert Wise’s 1963 horror, based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, wasn’t the greatest success on its original release. Unlike Hitchcock’s then-recent Psycho, with which it shares certain stylistic similarities, The Haunting takes until the very end of its final act to realise its demons, and even then the nature of its beast is left ambiguous. Nevertheless, in the decades following its debut it has picked up quite the cult following, its themes and sub-texts becoming more obvious and its merits more discernible. In the 1980s, its infrequent television appearances were greeted as a valuable alternative to the graphic gore fests that had by then become the norm.
Richard Johnson is Dr. John Markway, the self-assured man of science hoping to use Hill House as a means of investigating the reality behind spiritual visitations, assembling a team of expert witnesses to his experiment. Only three turn up: Theo (Bloom, magnetic), a Sapphic psychic; Luke Sanderson (Tamblyn), the otherwise disinterested heir to the house; and Eleanor, keen to escape the sofa in her sister’s living room following the death of their mother, for which “Nell” blames herself. The house takes a pretty instant shine to the timorous Eleanor, writing her enigmatic notes and seeking her out during the nights.
The real crux of Wise’s picture (actually shot in Warwickshire) isn’t so much the hauntings – although these are among the most effective ever committed to film – but the relationships between the characters and the unravelling of Eleanor’s sanity. Already on a knife-edge when she arrives, Nell misreads the married Markway’s kindnesses as advances and initially fails to register Theo’s interest, and it’s against this backdrop that Eleanor’s inner turmoil intensifies.
With its starkly contrasted monochrome compositions, sudden camera movements and odd perspectives, Wise’s film owes much to Orson Welles, and the Blu-ray transfer shows this debt off beautifully. There’s a touch of inadvertent grain only very infrequently, and but for the experimental lenses that Wise was using and the associated occasional softness of the focusing, everything looks wonderfully sharp, really bringing out the mood of the movie. It’s probably beneficial that the audio, so involved in the night-time visitation sequences, has been left in the original mono. Any attempt to improve it would surely have ruined the effect.
But for the possible overuse of internal monologues and Julie Harris’ overwrought but riveting performance as Eleanor, The Haunting still stands up as a relevant and effective study of both the psychology and parapsychology of its themes. The one real shame is the lack of any new extra features for the set.
Extras: trailer, 2003 commentary track
THE HAUNTING (1963) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT WISE / SCREENPLAY: NELSON GIDDING / STARRING: JULIE HARRIS, CLAIRE BLOOM, RICHARD JOHNSON, RUSS TAMBLYN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW