34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Among the greats,
This review is from: The Haunting [DVD]  (DVD)
This has to be my favourite haunted house movie of all time. The abysmal 1999 remake only made the craftwork and subtelty of this 1963 classic even more apparent. The story seems simple enough, but it has many intricate undercurrents. Basically, a doctor with an interest in haunted houses recruits a group of people to join him in staying at Hill House - a place with the most notorious reputation for supernatural activity he has ever discovered . The small group arrive at the house with the intent of monitoring any unusual phenomena, but the events that take place affect them in ways far beyond their expectations.
The pleasure that comes from watching the film is two-fold. Firstly and most obviously, the scary thrills as the group is assailed by various ghostly manifestations are tremendously well implemented. But secondly, the more subtle effects on the minds of the four main characters is equally as skillfully woven into the proceedings, and the viewer can clearly see the ways that all four of them handle the situation, with their friendships and allegiances to each other being severely tested, culminating in some emotionally charged arguments, and one particularly tragic final outcome.
The central cast handle their characters very well, The stunning Claire Bloom effortlessy brings to life the stylish psychic Theo, and both Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson also acquit themsleves well. But as in the novel, it is the character of Eleanor who really carries the action of the film, and Julie Harris makes a memorable impression as this disturbed and vunerable woman. The character sketch starts with her lonely home life being pictured in the early scenes, and the film then charts her initial delight in arriving at the house and meeting people who actually take an interest in her, then her unfolding bewilderment as Hill House seemingly singles her out for attention, followed by a whole range of emotions as she struggles to understand why fate seems to have brought her to the place. The other three characters often seem at a loss to understand Eleanor, and watching them all on screen closely, you can pick out various significant signs and habits, see their distrust starting to grow, and finally watch them accusing each other of either making things up or even faking some of the supernatural events that are happening. You also have to listen closely, as several scenes have characters speaking very quickly and over the top of each other, especially during arguments, which is a realistic depiction and one that is rarely attempted in the movies, but it is pulled off superbly here.
But the beauty of this film's power is that all the supernatural activity actually happens off screen, by which I mean that 90% of the scares are produced entirely on the soundtrack. The scenes in which episodes of the "haunting" are actually happening are superbly played out, and more than make up for the lack of any visible phantoms. The other dynamic element of the film is Hill House itself. Thanks to the superb art direction and sumptuous wide-screen photography, the exterior shots show it as one of the most menacing and eerie "haunted mansions" ever seen in the cinema. Equally effective is the interior design ,with every room and angle dripping with threatening looking statues and creepy ornamentation. The house itself is really the fifth star of the movie.
To get the most out of the experience, I would advise any potential viewer to put aside expectations of "The Haunting" as being a horror movie, and approach it instead as a psychological drama. It's actually a very thought provoking film that rewards your full attention so it's not one for fans of flashy action or in-your-face effects. It's also recommended for an adult audience simply because of the sheer subtlety of it, but being quite talky in places and long on mood between actual events, to my mind makes the action set pieces even more potent. Scenes like Eleanor climbing the dangerous spiral staircase, or the most famous sequence of the film, in which Eleanor and Theo are terrorised in bed by an unseen "something" making a racket in the corridor outside, are gripping and memorable, and probably work all the better after the time taken to establish the various dynamics of the four lead characters. There is so much between the lines in the script, I can't address many of the subtler issues, but having read the book as well, it's easy to read the events of the film on more than just one level, and it succeeds as both a very frightening haunted house thriller, and as a psychological character study. Definitely worth buying, because anyone prepared to put in the effort will find they reap rich rewards from watching this one more than just the once.