THE HAUNTING (1963, dir Robert Wise)
Robert Wise, the former protégé of Val Lewton who would go on to win multiple Oscars, returned to horror one more time in 1963, and created one of the genre’s all time masterpieces. Adapted from Shirley Jackson‘s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, it is the archetypal haunted house story, and an exercise in suspense and terror that has rarely been paralleled, if ever.
The simple premise – an anthropologist with an ulterior agenda invites specially selected strangers to an apparently haunted house – is a familiar one, with familiar expectations. Wise sought to both subvert and defy those expectations, and certainly succeeded: relying on none of the clichés of the genre, instead using his own experience and expertise to build cinematic psychology and provoke dread and terror.
Lonely spinster Eleanor (Julie Harris) and bold, adventurous empath Theodora (Claire Bloom) agree to stay at the house and sample its mysteries. Eleanor becomes convinced the house is a living entity, speaking directly to her. Theodora tries to calm and protect her companion, but finds herself increasingly convinced of her claims. The house is a character itself – designed by Elliot Scott, it is a fiendish mansion inspired by Expressionism, a maze of unusual geometry, claustrophobic passages and winding staircases that mirror Eleanor’s fragile mind and plays upon both character and audience tensions in every scene.
One of the masterstrokes of the film is the relationship between Eleanor and Theo. It is one of the first films to portray an LGBT character in a genuinely positive way, and Claire Bloom’s performance as Theo is key to this. Theo is hip, modern and smart, and her attraction to spinster Eleanor is handled in a mature and sensitive manner. The film largely eschews sexual subtext or undertones – choosing instead to play the developing relationship in a matter-of-fact manner. This is not something to titillate or amuse, it just is. A refreshing depiction of a gay woman in cinema.
The true power of The Haunting has always been its subtlety. All the scares of the movie are conjured form the unknown and the unknowable – it is what you don’t see that terrifies you, not what you do. Wise’s direction is a masterclass in restraint, forsaking cheap thrills and special effects in favour of building a creeping dread through atmosphere, sophisticated direction and smart editing. The director took all the tropes of the subgenre and found a sophisticated way to approach each of them, eschewing the obvious in favour of the implied. Throughout, the seeds of doubt are sown – is Eleanor (Julie Harris) insane or just insecure? Is empath Theo (Claire Bloom) really clairvoyant? The movement of Wise’s camera throughout the lavish mansion and the superb performances of Harris and Bloom are enough to set audiences on edge, and over 50 years on the film has lost none of its edge.
Voted number 22 in Time Out’s list of the 100 best horror films, number 13 in The Guardian’s best horror films of all time, and number 5 in Cheat Sheet’s 10 Best Horror Films of All Time. A true classic of LGBTQ cinema.
Watch the trailer for The Haunting (1963)
Have you listened to the new Beyond The Void Horror Podcast Episode? It's all about Possession. We talk Possession (1981) & The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). Two extremely great performance from women for #WiHM9. Press play, CLICK HERE or click on Pic to listen!