Directed By: Robert Wise
With my finger on the pulse, it’s time to delve into the original adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House. It’s currently had a makeover on Netflix and though I’ve not seen it yet I hear good things. Regardless of how you feel about that one though, this is always going to be here.
Hill House finds no better description than it did in the book’s opening paragraph, also related in the movie: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” See, I don’t think you could find something as ominous as that. It has a dark and sordid history and so naturally it’s the perfect location for Dr Markway’s experiments into the paranormal. Along with three volunteers from eventual heir to the house, Luke, to the psychic Theodora and lastly to poor, highly strung Eleanor; all agree to spend a few days in the house. Naturally, this is a haunted house story so technically I guess things go just as planned.
I don’t know how common the haunted house trope was in fiction when Jackson wrote her novel, but it clearly set the template for years to come. The movie solidifies it, though it plays more with the psychological aspects than the book did. Eleanor is already teetering on the edge when we meet her, after having spent 11 years caring for a dying mother and having what’s quite clearly an ungrateful family in return. Hill House gives provides her with a sense of purpose and before she even gets there you get the sense that she would do anything to stay. It’s her that Robert Wise anchors the movie to, with her mental unravelling and the haunting of the house entwined. Like The Shining, it’s unclear if Eleanor’s mental breakdown is fuelled by the house or if it’s the other way around.
There’s also an element of psychosexual tension to proceedings. There’s clearly something between Markway and Eleanor, despite the fact that he’s married. Likewise, there’s tension between Eleanor and Theo, whose sexuality is a little more explicit here than it is in the original novel. It’s made more abundant by Theo’s coldness once Eleanor establishes her interest in Markway instead. Eleanor herself, like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, is a pent-up ball of repression both sexually and otherwise. Ultimately her story is a tragic one, with her believing that just being at the house gives her meaning in her life and not that she’s instead just destined to become another footnote in the house’s history.
On that note, if I have one criticism of the movie it’s this: I find the unrelenting voiceover to be grating. I understand that the movie wants to place you in Eleanor’s head, but Julie Harris’ performance is good enough that she can get most of that across wordlessly. Instead, the narration is often undercutting scenes with what might as well be a giant sign telling you exactly what the character is thinking. Perhaps the thought behind it was that audiences might not get it and perhaps they were right, but it’s all too often inelegant. I’m not sure how the scenes would play out without narration, but I’d be interested to see it.
Also of note is the direction of Robert Wise. Wise, who had a varied career (Including the first Star Trek movie) uses every trick in the book. There are no jump scares or ghosts here, instead Wise uses sound and kinetic camerawork to suggest a feeling that the house is alive. It’s crazy to think that someone would watch this and then do the complete opposite, which is what we got with the 1999 remake. Why use highly-effective suggestion to scare audiences when you can use awful CGI. It also commits the bigger sin of ignoring the nature of the house. Like Michael Myers in Halloween, the house is just evil. It’s unknowable. Maybe it’s the land it was built on, who knows. Regardless, the house is bad. The remake decides to forgo that and twist itself in knots and relays some nonsense about serial child murder and whatnot. It’s all pointless and needlessly edgy. But then it was the 90s I suppose.
On a side-note, it also employs one of my favourite tropes: dead-eyed working class caretakers who understand the nature of the house and whose warnings go unheeded. This really dates back to Shakespeare and probably before that in some form and another (Even Friday The 13th gets in on it, with Crazy Ralph showing up as a harbinger of doom but who gets ignored, obviously at everyone’s peril) but I always like the suggestion in movies that the nature of these places are taken as a given by some characters. Early on a maid notes that no one from the nearest town will come at night, so it’s no good asking for help. Now, even if you didn’t believe in the supernatural, you have to admit that’s kind of messed up.