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?


robin said...

Thanks to your post I finally checked out this film. Wonderful!

Keith Seatman said...

I got Mrs Seatman to watch this one dark night some years ago, and it scared the hell out of her. The door pounding scenes are still scary creepy and down right disturbing. I did see the remake a few years ago after avoiding it for years. I should have not bothered def a remake to avoid.