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The Haunting

Get any group of movie-lovers talking about Haunted House films — the childhood favorites, the best-directed, and above all the most effectively creepy — and one minute won't pass before someone mentions The Haunting, then everyone nods in enthusiastic agreement before recounting whichever scene in this 1963 benchmark most freaked the bejeezus out of them. Robert Wise directed this brilliantly executed exercise in restraint and atmospherics between his two all-stops-out musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The contrast couldn't be more startling. A sober, faithful interpretation of Shirley Jackson's excellent novel, The Haunting of Hill House, it easily ranks among the finest supernatural suspense films ever made, perhaps second only to The Innocents (1961) in its use of mood, suggestion, and not showing what's behind the door to achieve a level of creeps that slithers under your skin and stays there a while. It also bears some thematic similarities to Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. It's easy to see how Stephen King drew upon Jackson's novel and Wise's film for his own story of a house that was "born bad." In his 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, King places The Haunting high on his short list of the basic coursework in gut-level terror films, and among the films that contributed something of value to the genre, with a special asterisk for being one of his personal favorites.

The story brings a group of psychic researchers to the "diseased" and "deranged" old New England mansion, a Gothic monstrosity whose construction mirrors the evil soul of its builder. As the opening voice-over intones, "whatever walked there, walked alone." A naive academic, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), leads a hand-picked collection of amateur investigators: Luke (Russ Tamblyn), heir to the house, is a skeptical hep-cat wise-ass whose only goal is to protect his upcoming investment property. Theodora (Claire Bloom), a sleek and brassy lesbian, was chosen for her ESP prowess. The linchpin of the story is repressed, browbeaten Eleanor (Julie Harris), whose personal history parallels key events in Hill House's sinister past. The four meet at Hill House to record conclusive evidence of "another world." Hill House, on its own terms, is willing to oblige. Seemingly sentient and watchful, Hill House is especially interested in Eleanor. As horrific ghostly eruptions escalate — including a cryptic "help Eleanor Come Home" scrawled on a wall — she is the center of Hill House's attention. Her abusive relationship with her now-dead mother, and an interrupted closeness with Dr. Markway, contribute to a relationship with Hill House that presages that of Jack Torrance to The Shining's Overlook Hotel. Julie Harris's performance is the movie's spine. Eleanor, the sheltered and psychologically broken young spinster, becomes one of the most complex and well-wrought characters in the genre. Through her The Haunting takes on layers of post-Freudian nuance that drives (literally) to a shattering climax.

The Haunting's hypodermic effectiveness derives from the masterful craftsmanship of director Wise. His early apprenticeship was at the feet of legendary producer Val Lewton, whose preference for atmospherics and mood over visceral shocks is visible throughout The Haunting. In Nelson Gidding's tight screenplay, outright "Boo!" moments are few. Instead, Wise (whose creds as an editor include Citizen Kane) builds a powerful sense of dread through off-kilter angles, staccato editing, and Davis Boulton's evocative black-and-white camerawork. Wise shot the Hill House exteriors on infrared film to give them an unnatural look. Other than that, the movie displays only one visual-effects trick — an oak door bulges inward, like an embolism, because something is pushing against the other side.

It's the use of sound, though, that really elevates The Haunting as a technical tour de force. Two of its most famously unnerving scenes are all about what we, along with Eleanor, can only hear. When the unseen supernatural presence pounds, boom, Boom BOOM, closer and closer along the hall outside Eleanor and Theo's room, the scare comes from what we can't see hitting the walls and then hammering the door, even as the camera presses us mere inches from the doorknob turning by itself. Later, in bed, Eleanor hears ghastly chanting and the cries of a child behind the wallpaper (where the decorative pattern suggests a malevolent face) — again neither Eleanor nor we can see anything other than what our imaginations show us, an effect that hits hardest when Eleanor screams, the lights come up, and she realizes that the cold hand she had been holding wasn't Theo's. It's a moment that only a select few screen ghost stories, before or since, have approached.

*          *          *

Warner's DVD edition of The Haunting finally delivers one of the most waited-for movies to the small platter. It is, however, a mixed bag. The good news is that the disc presents the film in its original 2.35:1 (anamorphic) widescreen, and Wise's striking compositions put every square inch to use. Plus there's a new commentary track with Wise, screenwriter Gidding, and all four principal actors. They were recorded separately and the track is only marginally scene-specific, but good information and warm reminiscing are on hand. Also added are a click-through stills gallery of pages from Wise's original screenplay plus his handwritten notes, a slide-show gallery of promo material, the endearingly overcooked theatrical trailer (in DD 2.0), and a few perfunctory words on cinematic ghost stories.

The bad news is that the film and audio elements received minimal upgrade attention. Oh, it's a good print marred only by minor flecks and scratches, but the contrast is boosted a bit too high, resulting in greater sharpness but diminished grayscale detail and a few overblown whites. More disappointing is the audio track, which is clean and clear but quite thin, even for its vintage, in low-fi DD 1.0 monaural. Expect to crank up your volume control for a satisfactory level. None of which is a show-stopper, mind you. It's just that The Haunting's complex and scarifying sound cries out for a DD 2.0 or better remix option. Given a mindful, expertly managed sound enhancement using its original elements, Chapter 12 — boom, Boom BOOM — all by itself would be a real pants-wetter. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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