With about forty feature films to his credit over a sixty year span, director Robert Wise was a fairly prolific filmmaker. He also was extremely versatile, with a resume that includes everything from Hollywood musicals such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story to science fiction epics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He also did more than merely dabble in the horror genre, with credits like The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and Audrey Rose to his name. His crown jewel, at least as far as fright flicks are concerned, is the 1963 spookfest The Haunting.
The Haunting takes place at Hill House, a large mansion with a nefarious past full of untimely deaths. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson from Zombie and The Monster Club) has a plan to research the paranormal energy within the house, and invites a group of people with extrasensory abilities to join him. Only two of his invitees agree; a vulnerable introvert named Eleanor Lance (The Dark Half’s Julie Harris) who was haunted by a poltergeist in her youth and a powerful psychic who’s known only by the singular name Theodora (Claire Bloom from The King’s Speech). Accompanied by the house’s skeptical heir, Luke Sanderson (Drive’s Russ Tamblyn), the group sets up shop for Dr. Markway’s investigation, and immediately gets supernatural results. But, it appears that the house has plans for Eleanor, and doesn’t want to let her leave.
The screenplay for The Haunting was written by Nelson Gidding (who also adapted The Andromeda Strain for Wise), adapted from the 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (whose short story “The Lottery” has been a staple of high school lit classes for…well, ever). Robert Wise sets the typical haunted house archetype on its ear by injecting a sensitive and empathetic character – Eleanor – into the mix. The story is told from Eleanor’s point of view, with her populating just about every scene and providing exposition through her crazed voiceover narration. Essentially, The Haunting is what happens when you take Catherine Deneuve’s Carol out of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and toss her into John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House.
Truth be told, there are obvious parallels between The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House. Richard Matheson’s book “Hell House” was written more than a decade after Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” but the two stories basically share the same rough framework of a paranormal investigator taking a research team of psychics into a spirit-infested habitat. In fact, any of the characters could probably be plucked from one movie and put into the other. Heck, whole scenes could be interchanged between the two. The confusion between the two movies goes far past the Hill House/Hell House one-measly-letter difference thing.
One thing that The Haunting has over The Legend of Hell House is pure spookiness. Matheson’s story is more in-your-face, but Jackson’s tale is subtle and unnerving, and Wise’s interpretation is packed to the gills with dreadful tension. The house is a character in and of itself, with doors that breathe, staircases that shake, and mirrors that lie. The psychic Theo sums up the mood of Hill House perfectly when she says “nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and you just catch something out of the corner of your eye.” That’s the subliminal horror of Hill House in a nutshell.
The terror in The Haunting basically boils down to two things: what is seen and what is not. Robert Wise chose cinematographer Davis Boulton (Children of the Damned, The Frozen Dead) to craft the visual aspects of the film. The Haunting is one of those movies where every frame of every shot in every scene is meticulously and painstaking planned out. Even though color movies had been the norm for decades, Wise chose to shoot the film in high-contract black & white, so the picture has a classic, vintage look to it. Boulton uses subtle camera motion and spinning illusory effects to make the viewer uncomfortable, further ratcheting up the suspense by throwing in some more advanced camera tricks, such as the Brian De Palma signature diopter shot, when he really wants to show off. Boulton’s photography tells the story while keeping the viewer on edge, and it’s all done with surprisingly few post-production special effects. The Haunting is all light and shadow, and that’s a compliment.
What isn’t seen in The Haunting is heard, and the sound effects were constructed by sound designer Desmond Briscoe (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Phase IV). The spirits and specters in The Haunting are never shown onscreen, so Briscoe’s bump-in-the-night aural assault is the only way the spooks are able to scare the pants off of the audience. The noises range from crashes and booms to footsteps and knocks, with a handful of more ethereal effects such as growling animals, creaking ships, and blowing winds mixed in to add a supernatural element to the vibe. Frankly, the viewer doesn’t need to see the ghosts; The Haunting is scarier with just the sounds, and the rest left to the imagination.
Like most good horror movies, The Haunting was disappointingly remade in 1999 with a big Hollywood cast that featured Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Owen Wilson in the four leads. Sadly, Robert Wise passed away just after his 91st birthday in 2005, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of musical theater geeks and horror nerds alike.