Friday, October 31, 2014

The Haunting

1963's THE HAUNTING has long had a favorable reputation in the horror genre. It is considered one of the most frightening movies ever produced. It has forever held a place on my list, films I'd anticipated. I imagined that it would become a film I would cite as one of the few of its genre to be worthy of being called a classic and actually scary.  Sadly, it is neither. Here in fact is a prime entry for that film series I ran some years back - "The Great Overrated."

The film is atmospheric. Starkly photographed by Davis Boulton. You can almost feel the chill in the air. Director Robert Wise shot the film at Ettington Hall (now a hotel) in rural England. Eerie things happen throughout the movie: noises throughout fill hallways and bang on doors in the wee hours, mysterious writing is discovered on a wall. THE HAUNTING is indeed a ghost story, set in an old mansion called Hill House with a long history of tragedy. Untimely deaths and a suicide. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) narrates this for us in the opening scenes.

Markway invites two women to the mansion to assist with his investigations in the paranormal, including Theodora (Claire Bloom) and a very shy woman named Eleanor (Julie Harris), who had spent years caring for her sickly mother, recently deceased. She is, to say the least, emotionally volatile. Why someone so unstable would be on the doctor's "shortlist" is but one of many of the screenplay's many faults. Eleanor is so out of sorts and shrieky that your patience with her, before her ultimate (and perhaps inevitable) fate, may well run out before the film's two hours elapse. Before the film can tie its themes of the occult and reincarnation together in an admittedly efficient closing.

Nelson Gidding, who based his script on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is the real culprit as to THE HAUNTING's ultimate failure. He thoroughly blands fascinating source material and the overall scenario with one dull scene after another. Things become very tedious. His characterizations are also dull, though Bloom transcends her part and is absolutely seductive as the sly psychic, with possible lesbian tendencies. Harris gives the part her all but remains annoying and hard to identity with (much less cheer on). Her erratic (bi-polar?) behavior and cloying voiceovers are often painful. The other roles are thankless, including Russ Tamblyn as the son of the heir of Hill House. His injections of humor fall flat.

But on a technical level, the film sometimes delivers. Wise employs then-new anamorphic Panavision and innovative lighting to make his film dreamlike. His direction is mostly excellent, despite having little with which to work. The sets by Eliot Scott are sensational. I liked the spiral staircase, always threatening to unbolt from the wall.

THE HAUNTING is such a disappointment, especially for a film Martin Scorsese calls one of the scariest of all time. I wasn't scared, just non-plussed.

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