The Haunting (1963)

Untitled-1I am slowly venturing into the unknown. Or rather, into the domain that I have chosen not to know — horror movies. And not just any horror movies; supernatural horror movies. The ones about the ghost in the attic, or about the creepy boy in white floating outside the bedroom window, or about the lady standing motionless at the end of the corridor. Those kinds of horror movies. I can deal with slashers killing idiotic teenagers, and machines that turn your body inside out, but anything supernatural and I go into defense mode. Yes, I’ve said it before, I’m a coward.

But there comes a time when one must break out of his shell. Some can do it quickly, others, like myself, must do it slowly, bit by bit. So, I’ve started exploring the genre. Testing its waters. Seeing what it has to offer. Just recently I watched The Blair Witch Project for the first time — something I never thought I’d do — and enjoyed it tremendously. I have a number of supernatural horror movies under my belt now, and I’m slowly taking on the bigger ones. The ones claimed to be among the most frightening of all time. The Haunting is one of them.

Is it that frightening, though? No. It’s more creepy and unsettling. It plays with the mind and ears instead of with the eyes. We see nothing. All our senses are heightened, but only our ears do the work. Footsteps, loud bangings, doors creaking and slamming shut, children laughing and crying, people screaming. It is more a soundscape masterwork than an all-rounded experience. The camera angles aim to disorientate and confuse, not to scare. Characters are often shot from low askew angles, or from above, as if we are the camera and we’re spying on them as they gasp.

The story begins very slowly. Maybe even too slowly. We are first introduced to the house, called Hill House, via a narration by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), who recounts the house’s 90-year history, and how a few of its owners and tenants died within its walls. We are then introduced to Markway himself, and the rest of the main players. They include the tease Theodora (Claire Bloom), the skeptic Luke (Russ Tamblyn), and the pathetic one Eleanor (Julie Harris), who has her own household troubles that prove to be of some great value to Hill House. Markway invites the three to spend some time at the house as part of his psychiatric study on supernatural behaviour. He is, of course, convinced that the house is haunted. He just needs the proof.

The first half of the movie treads very carefully over mirky waters, introducing us to the characters, letting us know who is who and what relationship they have to each other. A lot of the time is spent elaborating on Eleanor’s past with her troublesome bedridden mother, and very little is spent on the actual house. Because as we later find out, the house is very much alive. Its rooms are heavily decorated. They make one feel claustrophobic, even in some of its bigger spaces. According to Markway, there is no straight line and perfect angle in the house; every wall is slanted slightly, and every door hangs from its hinges so that it closes automatically. It’s like a recipe for jump scares and misleading supernatural activity.

And that’s interesting because the house is the movie’s scariest character. It is enormous, hollow, and menacing. It has vast walkways and labyrinthine corridors. At one point, a character claims that the layout of the house changed to prevent her from escaping. Its windows seem to be looking at you just as you are looking at them. And more than once I expected a figure or a face to appear there. The human element of the story, in many ways, hampers the house’s potential. I’d have been very content to sit and watch a camera glide through its empty halls and rooms for one and half hours. That would be even more scary. We might see a shadowy figure briefly run past the screen. Or hear footsteps chasing after us. We might even enter the nursery and find the baby’s crib rocking.

Best Moment | The door expanding and contracting as if breathing.

Worst Moment | Can’t think of one.

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