Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Field In England

A Field In England is showing at the Black Swan in York on Friday 7th February 2014 in an absolutely cracking double bill with Blood on Satan's Claw, once more showing the immaculate taste of the good people behind Fiendish Thingee. It all starts at 7pm, and you'll leave with the smell of loamy (and bloodsoaked) English soil in your nostrils. These really are wonderful films, both boasting extraordinary soundtracks, and it's a privilege to be able to see them screened together. Here's some notes for A Field In England, which I've fallen for utterly on a second viewing. More on Blood on Satan's Claw to come, hopefully. You might want to note the presence of SPOILERS below.

A Field In England is the fourth feature made by Ben Wheatley, one of the most exciting new British directors of recent years. It is also the third film on which he has collaborated with his other half Amy Jump, who wrote the script and co-edited the footage. It’s a difficult film to define or safely corral within familiar genre boundaries. As such, it continues in the line of his previous films, which have tended to meld various generic elements into a seamless whole. His debut, Down Terrace, was a tale of small time gangsters which felt more like a Mike Leigh film. Kill List also inhabited geezerish gangster territory, but the macho conventions were subject to critical scrutiny and transformed by the emergence of a horrific occult conspiracy plot which also laid bare the roots of power and spiritual corruption. Sightseers was a comedy drama which once more brought Mike Leigh to mind, but which also showed a keen poetic eye for the English landscape and a sharp awareness of cultural and class divisions in the country. A Field In England harks back to Down Terrace in terms of its delimited location, and its ingenuity within a limited budget. But we’re a long way from modern day Brighton here. Wheatley and Jump take us back instead to rural Monmouthsire in the mid-17th century, at the height of the English Civil War.

As soon as you start trying to place the film, you come adrift, however. The very mutability and lack of fixed form has led to a certain amount of confusion in its reception. The first word that has sprung to mind for most people that I know when summing it up is ‘weird’, usually preceded by an emphatic ‘very’. It’s set in a specific historical period, with authentic costumes (previously used in the excellent TV Civil War drama series The Devil’s Whore). But it’s certainly not a costume drama, and has little interest in the specificities of historical event. It also has some affinity with the Jodorowsky-esque head films which were so prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s, but it would be doing it (and Jump’s carefully through-composed script in particular) a huge disservice to reductively label it a trip movie (hallucinatory history, a 17th century trip, five go off their heads in a field etc.) with the concomitant assumption that it’s all just incoherent and self-indulgent weirdness for its own sake. The gorgeous black and white photography, elliptical narrative and measured pace lend it a classical European arthouse sensibility, too. The ghosts of Ingmar Bergman and the Tarkovsky of Andrei Rublev and Stalker are definitely hovering somewhere. The filmmakers have also cited Japanese writer and director Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film Onibaba, which takes place entirely within a landscape of tall lakeside reeds, another peripheral zone just beyond a world upturned by savage internecine war. It shares Field’s mixture of the poetic and the earthy, and is also charged with an atmosphere of myth, magic and the supernatural. Peter Watkins’ 1964 BBC drama Culloden is another influence invoked by the Field team. It’s semi-documentary approach to depicting the progress and context of the 1764 battle (drawing on John Prebble’s revisionist history) takes an entirely different approach to history, making it specific and real through attention to detail and a concentration on the experience of the ordinary soldier. The actors in Culloden were drawn from historical re-enactment societies, and Wheatley’s initial inspiration for A Field In England came from a desire to document the activities of the Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment society. They are an invisible presence at the start of the film, providing the authentic sounds of battle beyond the hedgerow.

At the same time, however, there is a blokey vein of cheerfully and unashamedly coarse humour running throughout the film. This serves to ground the arthouse elements and stop things from getting too rarefied and high-minded. There’s even a touch of the Carry On historical romp at times, with much dwelling upon bodily parts and functions. Whitehead’s analysis of Jacob’s penile problems is particularly amusing, the look on his face as he inspects the infected member through a magnifying glass held at arms length priceless. The two fingers and ripe raspberries of Sid James and the gang have here been replaced by a more direct vulgarity, with the full range of Anglo-Saxon slang regularly employed. The violence sometimes verges on the slapstick as well, with characters clocked on the head by shovels only to stagger up with little more than a groan.

Extra-cinematic influences also come into play. There’s a shared sensibility with the absurdist theatre of the post-war period (which also fed into European cinema of the 50s and 60s). In the plays of Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello, characters were generally confined to some netherworld, often with no fixed sense of place or time, leaving them disconnected from the real or the tangible. These worlds were simple and stark, and the dramas which unfolded within them were stripped down, and filled with elliptical or gnomic dialogue. The interrelationships of the characters were condensed and reduced to their essentials within this minimal framework, and the fundamental structures of power and influence were laid bare. The pit dug in A Field In England is an archetypal absurdist locale. It supposedly contains a treasure the nature of which nobody seems certain, but effectively becomes a communal, self-excavated grave. With its props and ladders, and the schisms in status which the division of labour in its digging and maintenance reveals, it could also almost anticipate the trenches of the First World War. And, as with all pits, it has myriad symbolic associations. It becomes a place dislocated from specific geography and time. The skull discovered in its depths could come from any era, past or future.

Tableau poses - the living woodcut
Field is also that most unfashionable of things in an age of realism and naturalistic drama: an allegory. This makes its period setting particularly apposite. It was, after all, the age of John Bunyan (who fought in the Civil War), and a time in which revolutionary sentiments were often couched in such terms, the political inextricably intertwined with the spiritual. The phrase ‘the world turned upside down’ (which was also the title of a contemporary ballad) is a phrase often used to sum up the spirit of the age; the possibility of fundamental and permanent transformation which lay behind the political, social and religious upheavals spreading through the land. The phrase is uttered by the alchemist O’Neill in Field, who adds the cynical addendum ‘and so is its pockets’, the philosophy of the ruthlessly opportunistic materialist who would seek to exploit and thereby undermine the idealistic spirit. We are offered a giddily literal visualisation of the phrase towards the end of the film, when the field becomes an airy sky, and the sky a grassy heaven. The religious element is central to the film (as it was in a more tacit fashion to Kill List), which again makes it boldly unfashionable. There are several still tableaux staged throughout the film, which are intended to capture the flattened perspective of the woodcut illustrations of the period, but which also lend a further air of sacred ritual to the proceedings.

We begin the film by crossing a threshold, pushing blindly through a thick and high hedgerow, fern and thorn parting before the panicked point of view which we share. The hedgerow is a barricade which separates us and the four characters we come across from the war, which proceeds loudly but invisibly beyond. This barrier immediately cuts us off from the world of historical event and the kind of film which attempts to give it colour and life. The brevity of the cameo appearance by Julian Barratt (Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh), abruptly truncated by a pike through the guts, also assures us that surreal comedy won’t be the primary mode of the film, although it will be present throughout. This is essentially a film to be taken seriously, even if its bawdiness and rough demotic, blending period fustian with up to date swearing, ensure that it is also eminently approachable and entertaining.

The three characters who stumble across each other in the field beyond the war are an ignoble trio. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), dressed in Puritan black with the lacily collared and cuffed shirt of a bookish man (he later confesses to have been ‘mainly amongst books’) is the first we come across. He flees the conflict and his enraged commander (a mercenary called Trower – the Barratt character – as we later discover) in abject terror. Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) is a hard-headed, individualistic and anti-authoritarian soldier whom we discover robbing the corpse of Whitehouse’s commander, unbooting it and hacking off the finger to get to the ring. He uses the third character, a bumpkin from rural Essex in a peasant’s headcap (played by Wheatley regular Richard Glover), who we later learn is a cooper, as a pillow to rest on, assuming that this is another corpse. It is only after he gets up that this daydreamer, a sleepy fool who wanders through life in a blissful daze, wakes from his deathly doze. These three are definite and distinct types, differentiated from each other through the divisions and variances of class, intelligence, piety and manner of speech. They are joined by a fourth, a shifty type called Cutler (Ryan Pope), who promises them a share of the food he is cooking just over the field’s brow. After this, he promises, he will show them the way to an ale house which lies a short way beyond. He is a false prophet, offering them a straight path to a phantom paradise (the ale house as heaven), an illusory Land of Cockayne in which their appetites will be forever sated and no-one need be sober again. Once they begin to follow him, the sounds of the war grow suddenly silent. They have crossed some kind of boundary, passed through into a space separate from the world.

Power dressing - O'Neill dons the mantle of absolute authority
Jacob and the cooper are soon dancing to Cutler’s tune, having eagerly wolfed down his mushroom-doped stew. They are enslaved by their appetites, which they are unable to control. Whitehouse refuses Cutler’s entreaties to eat, however, and more direct and brutal means of persuasion must be used to force him into the labour which they have all been enticed here to perform. He indicates his pistol, holstered around his groin, which remains an embarrassingly obvious phallic symbol throughout, the source of his cocky power. It as it this point, some 30 meandering minutes in, that the film’s antagonist, the alchemist O’Neill (Michael Smiley, another member of Wheatley’s regular repertory company), enters the field and the story, dragged in by the three reluctant recruits in the face of an apparently crushing weight of gravity, or against an immensely powerful counterforce. It’s as if another invisible presence is trying to prevent O’Neill from leaving whatever otherplace he currently inhabits (down below, perhaps). Having given his assistant a round kicking, as if he were a recalcitrant dog or a despised, bungling lackey, he dons his clothes whilst standing beneath a tree, the hallway in which he prepares to go out into this world. He finishes it all off with a billowing cloak, his symbolic mantle of authority, and stops to admire himself in the black glass of his scrying mirror. He turns this world in miniature upside down and lets everyone know in no uncertain terms that they are now under his power, and that he has brought them here to do his bidding (‘I conjured you’). They will seek buried treasure which his arts have divined is hidden somewhere in the field. We discover at this juncture that O’Neill is the alchemist whom Whitehead has been charged with tracking down and arresting for the theft of his master’s documents, manuscripts filled with formulae for magical transformations. He attempts an arrest, but is brushed aside with contemptuous scorn. The balance of power is wholly and humiliatingly against him.

So much for the basic plot, which proceeds from this point as an initially hopelessly unbalanced struggle between the divided trio of Whitehead, the cooper and Jacob on the one hand, and O’Neill and Cutler, the devil’s right hand man, on the other. This struggle obviously resonates beyond the surface narrative plane, however. It can be interpreted in any number of ways, not all of which have to mutually exclusive. Separate versions can be superimposed or positioned side by side, alternate realities to be contemplated at one and the same time.

Dead Man - William Blake guided by Nobody
The field could be a kind of purgatory, a no-place interzone where sins can be purged, allowing the soul to move on. Or it could be a curiously English version of the Tibetan Buddhist bardo, the space beyond death which the soul must navigate, either consciously attaining Nirvana or, assailed by the demonic shadows attaching to wrong actions in previous lifetimes, being cast back into the world in some guise or another. In this sense, Field would bear some resemblance to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, a film which is also shot in rich monochrome. Johnny Depp’s character, who is called William Blake but has no knowledge of his namesake, is the dead man, shot in the gut early on, who is guided through a Western version of the bardo by a Native American called Nobody. He is pursued by demonic, cannibalistic bounty hunters, but becomes transformed into a figure of death himself as he journeys on. O’Neill and Cutler are two more demonic figures, relishing the cruelties they deal out, and there is a hint that the meat and bones in the stew they serve up is in fact human flesh. References to God watching in judgement, Cutler’s remark that ‘you are as good as dead this side of the hedgerow’, the uncanny impression that ‘we’re only shadows here’, and Whitehouse’s reflection that ‘whilst we live in fear of Hell, we have it’ all support such readings.

Another religious interpretation could see this as a confrontation between the Devil and a curious and unlikely incarnation of the Trinity. The cooper is a holy fool whose simple, vacant utterances occasionally express unalloyed and penetrating truths. It is he who identifies O’Neill’s true aspect, mildly observing ‘it does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman, although I would’ve thought a little taller’ (probably my favourite line in the film). He also reflects, apropos of nothing, ‘I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for – everything!’ They have taken on the sins of the world. Whitehead undergoes his own Passion, driven by O’Neill across the field like a vacant puppet to divine the position of the treasure. Later, he crams his gullet full of mushrooms, a sacrament of sorts (he has already drunk the drugged wine) and cries out ‘I shall consume all the ill future which you are set to unleash’. He is the innocent lamb who takes on the sins of the world, absorbing the infections of devils like O’Neill. Towards the end, he lies down in the grass and holds his hands together in prayer. When he folds them outwards in an open gesture which embraces the world, they are filled with blood, as if stigmata had manifested.

The Divided self - O'Neill recumbent

The divided self - Whitehouse recumbent
Moving away from such religious interpretations, this could also be seen as an allegory of the divided self. O’Neill and Whitehouse are opposing polarities of a singular being (something visually represented by filming their initial dialogue through isolated, intercut profile close-ups), intellectuals and seekers of knowledge with differing aims and pleasures. O’Neill is vain and materialistic, seeing in bookish wisdom a route to power in the world. He is wholly and violently male. Whitehouse is more feminine, having developed a liking for lacemaking, and is not brave or powerful in a physical sense. O’Neill imposes his superior male physicality on the splintered aspect of his dual self (a duality which he acknowledges later on by shouting that they are ‘two halves of the same man’) by raping Whitehouse in his tent. This subjugation represents what he intends to do to the entire world. Whitehouse is effectively the only representative of the female spirit in the film, something acknowledged by the very male Jacob’s mordant remark that ‘what this party lacks is the civilising influence of women’ (a line of dialogue that is possibly also a wry comment from its female writer).

Body over mind - Jacob as the embodiment of the purely physical
Jacob himself is a representative of the basic physical self, and Cutler is his opposite. He is obsessed with bodily functions, constantly uses sexual swearwords (to really swear at the time you would blaspheme), and suffers terribly in the region of his arse and his cock. If Whitehouse looks up at the stars to effect his divinations, living in the celestial realm of the intellect, then Jacob is firmly rooted to the ground (to which he effortfully adds his own earth at one point). The holy fool, meanwhile, is on his own. He has no dual self. He is, in his own way, whole, if insubstantial. In their trinity, he is the holy spirit, sometimes hardly there at all. This insubstantiality lends him a certain immortality, and he rises from the dead on several occasions (‘you’ve risen more times than fucking Lazarus’, an exasperated Jacob exclaims). He can’t even grasp the notion of the celestial bodies which Whitehouse tries to explain to him. But when he sings his song, the old Scottish lullaby Baloo My Boy, it is like a hymn, pure and true.

Spade head - the depersonalisation of forced labour
The divided self can also be seen as a symbolic reflection of the division of the general populace against itself. Whitehouse, Jacob and the cooper are reduced to slavery by O’Neill, and yet initially they do nothing to help each other. The inebreiated duo cavort behind Whitehouse as he is brutally driven through the field, and Jacob initially mocks his book learning. He comes to be thankful for it later, however, recognising its worth as a soothing balm is applied to his burning member. The servitude and individual erasure of forced labour is represented by still shots in which heads are eclipsed by the spatulate flat of a shovel’s business end, and the shovel is also used as a weapon to turn against the serf who dares to defy orders and put it down. Jacob and the fool fight each other in the pit they dig and are effectively cast into, a political dispute over the latter’s refusal to recognise his servile state (‘I’ll be a better slave than you’, he boasts). It is only when they join together, unite in action, that they are able to confront O’Neill and Cutler. Thus the story can also be seen as a political fable about the need for a common purpose and fixed resolve to raise the commonality from their servitude. ‘I am my own master’, Whitehouse determines as he rises above the humiliations of his subjugation.

Embracing the world
So what is the field, then? It is the world in miniature, the nation encompassed within the boundaries of a hedgerow. If the period in question saw the world turned upside down, then this is the world inverted, the great contained within the small. There is some wonderful early morning photography which captures the details of the miniature world made immense: dandelion seedheads eclipsing the sun, a spider’s web framing O’Neill, a caterpillar bending a blade of grass. During his final holy delirium, as they are crawling through the grass, Whitehouse tells Jacob that he proposes writing a book and calling it ‘A Field in England, or the Myriad Particulars of the Common Weevil’. They have been reduced to the scale of scurrying insects. The giant black sun which Whitehouse sees swelling above the field, its dark absence of light relentlessly spreading to swallow the world entire, is also the circular void of his pupil (and of the black circle of the scrying glass), a projection of his own expanding vision. The field is also a region of inner space, a New Worlds/Ballardian concept about which Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, whose next film is an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, are clearly well-acquainted. ‘You cannot escape the field’, O’Neill bellows at one point, because there is nothing beyond. The field is the world, and it is also an interior landscape encompassed by the walls of Whitehouse’s skull. ‘Then I shall become it’, Whitehouse responds. His exhalation becomes a gale force wind, several marks on the Beaufort scale above the divine breezes riffling the undergrowth in Tarkovksy’s Mirror, flattening the grass and sending O’Neill’s tent ballooning into the sky. An inhalation and it is over, the breath of the world drawn back in. In the end, Whitehouse returns through the hedgerow he’d first struggled through. But he doesn’t find himself in the thick of war. He’s back in the field, and Jacob and the cooper are there waiting for him. The last we see of them, they are standing in a row, proud and upright, the re-united aspects of a once divided whole.

The divided soul made whole
A final mention should be made of the film’s soundtrack. It’s a brilliant combination of ancient and modern which perfectly matches the film’s own sensibility. Jim Williams’ folkish songs and instrumentals create an ideal atmosphere for the more reflective moments of the film. He also blends a mournful chug resembling the sound of a viol consort (like a slowed down Michael Nyman) with the rising crescendo of an Ennio Morricone score, which finally bursts out in spaghetti western fuzz guitar at the climax of the film. Williams gets to sing the fool’s song, Baloo, on the credits, a demo recording which the filmmakers cheekily used against his expressed wishes. He has nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a lovely rendition. Contrasting with this aspect of the soundtrack are pieces of electronic music and sound design. Martin Pavey’s Metallic Fields is a piece of musique concrète which derives its sources from the resonances of struck gongs. It has a misty vaporousness and shimmering absence of attack reminiscent of Delia Derbyshire’s Blue Veils and Golden Sands. Chernobyl, a track taken from the debut (and thus far only) album by electronica artist Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin Power, one half of the Fuck Buttons), accompanies Whitehouse’s slow-motion emergence from O’Neill’s tent, and adds a huge emotional charge to what is already a powerful scene. The soundtrack received a limited edition vinyl release, long sold out, but will hopefully see wider distribution at a later date. It’s certainly worthy of it.

This is a film which gained a great deal from a second viewing, and it’s certainly one which I shall return to many more times. You can return to the field time and again, if indeed you ever really left it. Enjoy your trip, but perhaps it would advisable to pass on the mushroom soup when you return to the bar downstairs.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting is being shown at the wonderfully atmospheric Black Swan pub in York, thanks to the auspices of the local enthusiasts behind Fiendish Thingee, on 24th January, accompanied by the acclaimed short The Screaming Skull by Ashley Thorpe and with an introduction from horror author Mark Morris. It all starts at 7.30pm and should be a fabulous evening of chilling entertainment. There's a fine selection of ales downstairs with which to calm your nerves afterwards. Anyway, here's some accompanying notes:

The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise in 1963, is one of the great cinematic ghost stories. But is it really a ghost story at all? The film concerns a paranormal investigation taking place in a New England mansion with a twisted history and a warped architectural plan. It is certainly a story in which a haunted house looms large, its darkly malevolent façade the first and last thing we see, and its labyrinthine, logic-defying interior the claustrophobic confines in which the characters (and we, the viewers) are shut in almost from the beginning. The opening narration introduces the house as if it were a character itself, with a life of its own and a distinctly unpleasant personality. As we look at a silhouetted outline of its turreted towers and gabled wings, we are told that ‘Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay still against the wood and stone of Hill House. Whatever walked there walked alone’.

Hill House looms
The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s superb novel The Haunting of Hill House, from which these prefatory words are adapted. They are spoken by Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson), whose name is changed from the John Montague of the book. He is the academic who has set up this investigation into the supernatural, which has been his passionate interest since childhood. His eager attitude is summed up by his assertion that ‘an evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored’. Markway may be a respectable professor of anthropology, but at heart he is a ghost hunter. His scientific detachment is seriously compromised by the boyish excitablility with which he approaches his work, and by his evident desire to uncover, or if necessary stir up, some verifiable supernatural phenomena. To achieve his ends, he has gathered some subjects selected for their ‘sensitivity’ to the paranormal, who will act as foci for any manifestations of the uncanny, and, he hopes, be finely attuned to whatever forces lie latent within the wall of the house.

Eleanor and Theo
Eleanor (Julie Harris) lived in a house upon whose roof a shower of stones rained for several days in her childhood, a deluge which everyone assumed was connected with her intensely inward psyche. The talents of Theodora (Claire Bloom) have been brought to light more recently after she strode into a university laboratory and correctly identified the vast majority of the cards held up by the experimental tester behind a screen (these being Zener cards, presumably). This pairing is much diminished from his original list. They are the only two who have accepted his invitation, perhaps because they are the only two whose lives have reached such a state of impasse that they need a radical departure from the norm. In a scene cut from the film (but present in the book) we would have learned that Theodora (or Theo, as she prefers to be called) has just walked out after a massive row with her girlfriend. Her evident interest in Eleanor makes it clear enough that she’s looking for someone new in her life, however. The unsensationalised, matter of fact presentation of a lesbian character is one of the film’s incidental pleasures. Dormant or hidden sexuality is another current between the four temporary inhabitants of Hill House. It’s another potent source which the house’s malevolent genius loci can tap, distort and use for its own ends. At one point, a leering statue of Pan peers mockingly down at Eleanor as she runs panicked through the corridors. It’s a symbolic embodiment of this aspect of the house’s manipulative spirit.

Eleanor checks out Theo's Mary Quant gear
Eleanor is looking to escape the trap of her family home, where her sister treats her with as much controlling contempt as her mother, whose care has eaten up most of her life, had done before her recent death. A third guest in the house, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), is here on sufferance, at the insistence of his aunt, the house’s owner. He’s there both to keep an eye on the property he will eventually inherit, and to keep him out of her way for the weekend. He also serves, with his earthy and thoroughly cynical attitude, as a useful control element for the experiment. Someone who won’t believe in anything unless he can touch it, hold it and preferably make some money out of it. The costumes tell us a good deal about these characters. Theo dresses with modish confidence in Mary Quant gear. Eleanor is tweedily indistinct, buttoning herself up in plain blouses to render herself prematurely spinsterish. Dr Markway is smart casually professorial, with tie tucked neatly under warm pullover (those nights watching for spooks could get chilly) and jackets in sensible check and classic heavy elbow-patched corduroy.

Mrs Dudley or Mrs Danvers
Eleanor and Theo are psychologically primed to feel uneasy and full of dread from the moment they arrive, when they are greeted by Mr and Mrs Dudley, the Grant Wood American Gothic couple who keep the grounds and house. They look and sound as if they have wondered in from other stories. Mr Dudley is the doomsaying gardener, the kind of tersely disdainful ‘local’ type who instinctively takes a dislike to anyone and anything beyond a five mile radius from his place of birth and breeding; the like of which was parodied by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. He’s played with immaculate grumpiness by Valentine Dyall, who would later go on to foretell more ill as The Black Guardian in a trilogy of Dr Who stories from the Peter Davison era. Mrs Dudley (a nice cameo from Rosalie Crutchley) is a stony-faced Mrs Danvers, who tries a bit too hard to be unsettling and discouraging, going through all the things which she won’t do, and is easily dismissed with parody and laughter. She allows herself a thin-lipped smile when she announces that ‘there’ll be no-one to hear you in the night, in the dark’, a small flicker of pathetically twisted pleasure which almost makes you feel sorry for the emptiness of the life which prompts it. This cold couple are almost like emanations of the house itself, scarcely more animate than the unhappy family statue group in the glasshouse. They are a warning of the effect which prolonged proximity to Hill House has on the human soul.

Professor Markway expounds
Dr Markway’s experiment allows for a certain amount of disquisition on the nature of hauntings and psychic phenomena. He, and to a certain extent Shirley Jackson, her screen adaptor Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise, see the haunted house as a laboratory, testing the psychological roots of fear which underpin the nature of the ghost story itself. Dr Markway is one in a long line of ghost hunters and investigators. More modern manifestations of the type tend to blend a rationalistic approach with an underlying need or desire to believe, or a forthright determination to dispel the occluding fog of such superstitious thinking. These investigators can be rather isolated, driven individuals, sometimes a little sad or cranky, sometimes amusingly eccentric. Examples include Tully in the episode of Sapphire and Steel set on an old railway station, whose platform is trod by the ghost of a First World War soldier; Dr Barrett in Richard Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House; Peter in Alan Garner’s Dramarama Spooky episode The Keeper; the hardnosed commercial scientist who would turn spirits into profits in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape; Florence Cathcart, the post-First World War ghostbuster in the recent British film The Awakening; and, more comically, Milton Guest (Peter Sallis) in the 1978 HTV children’s drama The Clifton House Mystery, and Neil McCarthy as Professor Pogmore in The Ghosts of Motley Hall. After Markway’s experiment goes horribly wrong (I hope I’m not giving too much away, but you wouldn’t expect anything less, would you), Shirley Jackson has his career and boyhood enthusiasms sadly fade away. She notes dryly that ‘Dr Montague (as he is called in the book) finally retired from active scholarly pursuits after the cool, almost contemptuous reception of his preliminary article analysing the psychic phenomena of Hill House’.

Noises at the door
The house, with its off-kilter architecture designed to disorient and disturb, acts as a receptor and amplifier of human anxieties and buried fears. It’s a huge, rechargeable psychic battery, drawing on the minds of any inhabitants who stray into its corridors and hallways, and discharging the resultant energies to power a creaking, groaning dynamo of wood, plaster and brick. Spirits inherent in the house are manifested sonically; either through extreme noise terror (rhythmic pounding which threatens to buckle doors and crash through ceilings) and white noise blizzards or, more disturbingly, small sounds half heard. Rodent scrabble, muttering, slurred incantations, hysterical laughter and the crying of a child. These are the sinister resonances (pace David Toop) heard in the dead hours, noises with no evident source from things which shouldn’t be in the house with you. There is, however, one instance of apparent physical contact which provides one of the great chill down the spine moments in supernatural fiction and film.

Eleanor alone
The night terrors in The Haunting are all the more unnerving because we are made to care about the characters, and about Eleanor in particular. We hear her inner voice throughout, sounding with a hollow reverberation which only serves to underline her isolation in the world. It grants us an intimate knowledge of her wandering thoughts, a close-up view of her psyche as it battles bravely with low self-esteem, loneliness and despair. All the characters have their own vulnerabilities which the house seems to have an uncanny ability to sense and exploit. This is a portrait of the haunted house as an overbearing, pitiless bully, one who, like all bullies, knows how to choose allies with their own weaknesses in order to gang up on their chosen victim. Hill House is a microcosm of an uncaring and unsparingly competitive world as perceived by the psychologically wounded or vulnerable. The characters who gather together within its walls are haunting their own lives, and thus prove ideal ghosts in the making, spirits waiting to be extracted and trapped in its maze of corridors. But, as we have been told, whatever walks there, walks alone. Whomsoever the house singles out, it will work to isolate them, set them against the others and the others against them. Any harm which ultimately befalls them will derive from each other.

Luke disarmed
It’s also a dark inversion of the house as the symbolic heart of family comfort, warmth and protection. It has a terrible family history, springing from a cruel patriarch, and it is unhappy family relationships which it picks upon in Markway’s guests (a temporary family of sorts in themselves), expanding upon any inherent guilt or resentment attaching to them. The pounding on the walls amplifies the thumping with which Eleanor’s mother used to summon her (and which she chose to ignore on one fateful night). Theo’s friendship with Eleanor echoes her relationship with her girlfriend, and she is pushed into becoming domineering and bullying once more, thus pushing away the object of her affections. Markway’s wife turns up and pours scorn on his whole project, and it becomes clear that she holds his dearest beliefs, and by extension himself, in contempt. And Luke is forced to confront the emptiness and weath-cushioned drift of his rootless life.

Demonic faces in the wallpaper
Everyone spirals inward, and this plunge into the psychic void is embodied in the loosely attached iron spiral staircase, which winds up towards a narrow attic entrance (the route into the subconscious) and in the terrifyingly distorted visage which emerges from the wallpaper which Eleanor stares at, and which seems to leak the sounds of past sufferings from its shadowy maw. The idea of a wallpaper revealing hidden patterns when stared at too long brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story The Yellow Wallpaper, a tale of domestic mental disintegration. These are terrors which manifest themselves when people are trapped within interiors, and within the constraints of lives which limit a more expansive spirit. These spirals and shifting, sinister crannies create a sense of psychological vertigo, of a self-hypnotic drawing towards the edge, an invitation to fall. The compulsion to let oneself go, to plummet into the centre of a beckoning void, goes hand in hand with the surrender of the self. It is the wilful dissipation of the persona, which atomises like so much particulate dust, whirled away and dispersed. One day, it might by caught in a beam of afternoon light shining through a gauzy window, and appear to an imaginative eye to take on some kind of momentary form, a face with a look of sad bewilderment. The Haunting can, at times, be a quite extraordinarily bleak and psychologically harrowing film; a glimpse into the void, opening up in the embossed interstices of an old and faded wallpaper pattern.

The compulsion to fall
The haunted house as the maze of a mind turned in on itself is an idea which is also explored in The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick makes the metaphor literal by having Jack Nicholson’s increasingly unstable husband and father stare fixedly down upon a model of the maze in the gardens. He later loses himself utterly in the real version and becomes a frozen statue amongst its snow drifted hedgerows. Wise’s maze, with its unstable spiral at the centre, is subtler, more elegant and disconcerting however. It is also realised with a great deal more humanity and compassion. And Wise certainly didn’t need to torment any of his actors to get the performances he wanted from them.

Fancy staying the night?
The film may be set in New England, but there is something very old English about its atmosphere. This is not least because it was shot in the UK, at MGM’s Boreham Wood studios in Hertfordshire, one of the home counties film worlds ringing London. The exteriors were shot at the neo-gothic pile of Ettington Park near Stratford Upon Avon. It’s now been turned into an upmarket hotel, so you can stay the night if you wish. Although you should perhaps be advised that the AA deems it the most haunted hotel in the country. You might also think of asking for a change of room if you find yourself put in the old nursery.

A warm welcome to Hill House - Valentine Dyall as Mr Dudley, the caretaker
The cast has a distinctly English pedigree, too. Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall were both character actors often seen on stage and television. Someone else must have drawn the comparison with Cold Comfort Farm, too, since Crutchley appeared as Judith Starkadder, the mother of the doom-loving rural clan, in a 1968 TV adaptation. Richard Johnson was a British stage actor who had just been appearing in a RSC adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devil’s of Loudon (also the basis for Ken Russell’s notorious 1971 film) at the time The Haunting started filming. Julie Harris was also spotted by Robert Wise on stage. The quality of the actors adds immeasurably to the complexity and depth of the characters in The Haunting. Claire Bloom had been appearing on stage and screen since her teens, and was at this stage playing classic romantic roles such as Anna Karenina and Cathy in Wuthering Heights on British television. Lois Maxwell, who plays Markway’s wife, appears just a year after she had first played Miss Moneypenny, the character with whom she would become synonymous, in Dr No. Russ Tamblyn came with Robert Wise from his previous film West Side Story, and brings one of the few authentically American elements to the set up.

It’s worth noting that Robert Wise made The Haunting in between West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Prior to this, he had made the science fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, and turned his hand to crime thrillers, films noirs, boxing pictures (two of these), social issue and boardroom melodramas and submarine-set war movies. Talk about diverse! The Haunting took him back to the territory of his directorial debut, however. He made The Curse of the Cat People with producer Val Lewton in 1944. It was a lovely, poetic, tangential sequel to Cat People, the first of the literate, beautifully written horror b-pictures which Lewton made for RKO in the 40s. It too features a haunted house, a lonely girl whose perspective we share, and damaged relations within families. The house is haunted by the living ghosts of an aging actress who has retreated into a fantasy of her past, and her sad daughter, whose life has been dominated and eclipsed by her overbearing and flamboyant mother; Another point of comparison with The Haunting. Wise also directed The Bodysnatcher for Lewton, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s gruesome short story, and he brought out a quite superb performance from Boris Karloff.

For The Haunting, he used low angle shots looking upwards from ground level to give the impression of a confining space, of walls and ceilings pressing in. He also used a new lens which was still in development, and which at this point had a flaw which entailed a certain amount of distortion at the edge of the picture. He ignored the pained pleas of the technician involved, insisting that this ‘imperfection’ created precisely the look he was after. In tandem with unconventional angles and camera placements, it gives a powerful effect of disorientation, adding to the sense of a malign, oppressive architecture and interior design already created by Elliott Scott’s impressive sets. Wise’s shooting of the scenes on and around the spiral staircase are particularly effective. He erected a pole parallel to it, so that the camera could be smoothly manoeuvred up and down, and could floatingly observe whoever was climbing it, or view it from above or below. He also had the camera’s point of view glide up, down and around the hand rail, a readymade track. This is used to dizzying ends when we whirl rapidly down, as if hurtling out of control down a helter skelter.

Wise’s assured directorial touch and imaginative response to material with which he was obviously sympathetic, along with his handling of a fine cast, make this one of the greatest films of the fantastic in cinematic history. Now who’s that knocking on the door so loudly and vigorously at this time of the night?