From the video case:
Dr. Markway is an anthropologist with a special interest in psychic phenomena who wants to try a true exercise in terror. Intrigued by the legend of Hill House, he invites two women, psychic researchers, to join him in his adventure. Mrs. Sannerson, who has inherited the old mansion, is suspicious of Dr. Markway’s intentions and insists that her young nephew Luke go along with the group. Luke is a skeptic about the supernatural, until he enters Dr. Markway’s eerie world. (1963, b&w)
The major flaw with the description posted above is that it neglects to mention the character this film is centered around, the nervous Eleanor Lance, played exquisitely by Julie Harris. It also features the talents of Claire Bloom (The Illustrated Man) as Theo (the psychic with lesbian undertones), Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sanderson (the young skeptic), and Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway. This film is based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House.
As a testament to The Haunting, I will state up front that I’ve only watched it twice. Once when I first purchased it on video cassette years ago, and then again tonight. How is this a testament, you ask? It’s a testament in the sense that this movie freaked me out so much during my first viewing that I have only tonight gone back for seconds.
The Haunting competently combines the supernatural with psychological terror. We are allowed (or, more accurately, trapped) inside Eleanor’s head and feel her sense of isolation, loneliness, fear, and unreality. This is accomplished not only with her voice overs, but with Robert Wise’s (The Day the Earth Stood Still) fine direction. It would be hard to overestimate the effectiveness of the camera work in this picture.
An amazing aspect of The Haunting is that it is frightening without ever showing us a ghost,a severed hand, or even a drop of blood. In fact, sometimes we are left wondering if the spirits are only in Eleanor’s mind. You can’t deny a certain existential feel to the movie.
If I had to find fault with this film, it would be in the hot/cold relationship between the two female leads. Theo and Eleanor are practically in love with one another one moment, and then verbally abusing each other the next. This cycle runs throughout the movie’s entirety. I suppose it helps add to the sense of uncertainty, but it can get annoying.
Though I wasn’t as unsettled during my second viewing of The Haunting as I was the first, I still declare it to be one of the scariest ghost movies around. All points given are for true artistic merit and genuine chills. I recommend watching it alone and in the dark.
Scene to watch for: Eleanor, already at the point of nervous breakdown, realizes the hand that has been clutching hers so tightly isn’t the hand of her roommate.
Line to listen for: “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.