Night #17: The Haunting (1963)

Directed By: Robert Wise

God! God! Whose hand was I holding?”

 

There’s no rhyme or reason to why I choose the movies I do. For instance, the wind was howling tonight and for some reason this came to mind. That’s about as deep as my thought process goes. I’m glad I did though since what we have here is a stone cold classic.

It doesn’t get mentioned that often, but anyone in the know will tell you that this is a great movie. It’s something that’s endured over the years rather than made a big impact (To that end, see The Changeling with George C Scott) and has probably seeped into the culture without you realising. It’s an originator that still feels fresh, like all the best movies do. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t think the original Friday the 13th actually works all that well. It might have done it first (And first is a loose term – as we’ll see later in the month) but even its own sequels did it better. For all the ways you can get this type of movie wrong then see the 1999 remake. Or better yet: don’t. Just take my word for it. It’s bad.

Even the set up is familiar: A parapsychologist and an assortment of people investigate the legend of a supposed ‘haunted’ house. There’s the young benefactor who stands to inherit it, there’s the slightly kooky one who’s had experiences in the past, and there’s the repressed one who harbours some psychological scars. The rest of what we see is what happens while they’re there.

Almost nothing is shown during The Haunting, instead it’s largely down to the great sound design and suggestion. It’s clear there’s something happening, but Wise holds back on exactly what it is. There’s a lot to be said when ambiguity is done well and again another failing of the remake is to spell out exactly what’s happening and why. It’s all just flashy and effects driven and ‘safe’ in a way that 90s horror tended to be. Instead there’s the buckling of doors, there’s intense banging (Careful now) and there’s more suggested than ever said. 

If you are going to go the way of the remake then you go all the way. The great Richard Matheson wrote Hell House, which served as an extended homage to this (The title of the book The Haunting is based on is The Haunting of Hell House.) and made the not so explicit themes far more explicit. To use an overused phrase, Hell House dialled things up to 11. But it works because Matheson was a great writer and there are elements to that story which still shock today. He took the subtext and made it the text.

The Haunting works because the title is so literal. It’s not just the house that’s being haunted. Nell, our de facto lead character is suffering from some issues of her own, and the movie draws the line between her own crumbling sanity and the events of the house. It doesn’t necessarily link one directly to the other, but it plays around with these ideas in a way that (yes I’ll mention it again) the remake doesn’t, nor does it have any interest in doing so. Why do that when you can get chased by a giant wall of CGI?

When I find something I really like I try to refrain from talking about it as much as possible. It seems weird I know but it’s great to just experience these things blind, so to speak. I could talk about the performances, the writing, the crisp black and white look of the movie but it wouldn’t be the same. Let’s put it like this: I love this movie and I hope you do too.

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