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Haunting, The

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This entry created 5 July 2021. Last revised on 5 July 2021.

1,738 hits since 6 Jul 2021
©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
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Haunting, The

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star (9.33)

This is the first film version of the 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

The premise is that a psychic investigator, Doctor Markway (played by Richard Johnson, father of GW's Jervis Johnson), is making a visit to Hill House to verify if it is truly haunted. Accompanying him are two volunteers: Theodora (played by lovely Claire Bloom), who can predict 19 out of 20 unseen cards; and Eleanor (played by Julie Harris), who experienced an apparent poltergeist event at age ten. Also present to ensure the house is not harmed is wise-cracking college student Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story), who plans to make a pile when he inherits the house someday.

What will they experience at Hill House? What secrets of the past are hidden there? Can a house be insane?

The backstory is that director Robert Wise owed another picture to MGM on his contract, but when they didn't want to fork out the budget he desired, he made a deal with MGM UK instead! That's why the movie was filmed in the U.K., why there are so many British actors, and why 'Hill House' (the exterior shots) is filmed at an old British manor house (considerably larger and different from the house in the novel).

The filmmakers have also changed the characters from the novel. Doctor Montague from the novel was an amiable older man; Doctor Markway in the movie is 20 years younger, British-American, handsome, and a man of action. Luke Sanderson in the novel wasn't well described, except that he was said to be a "liar" and a "rake"; Luke Sannerson in the movie is much younger, joking about how he's going to make money when he inherits the house. Eleanor is much the same, except that the actress is a bit older than the character; Theo from the novel giggled a lot, and in the movie has a harder edge. (A scene was cut which would have defined Theo as lesbian; so the movie, like the novel, only hints at that.)

The change in the characters also changes the relationships. In the novel, there are hints that Luke is pursuing both women; in the movie, Luke is too young for the women, Eleanor is attracted to Doctor Markway, who is arguably manipulating both women for the sake of his 'experiment'.

The professor's wife appears near the end of the story in both book and novel. In the book, she was an almost comic figure, certain of her gift with ghosts; in the movie (played by Lois Maxwell, the future Miss Moneypenny of the Bond films), she's the skeptic trying to save her husband's reputation. Her friend from the novel does not appear in the movie version.

The movie also makes the decision to eliminate most of the action outside the house, with the intention of giving a claustrophobic sense of being trapped inside a few key rooms of the old house. The timespan is also changed from the novel (longer than a week) to just a few days.

The novel's narrator focuses on Eleanor and what she is thinking, so that the reader is 'trapped' inside Eleanor's mind. That's not possible in a movie, but there are voiceovers of what Eleanor is thinking. The novel carefully leaves it to the reader to decide if the house is haunted; the movie tries to have it both ways, as Eleanor is clearly having some kind of breakdown, but in other ways confirms the haunting theory…

Can you game it? Yes, limited like the movie to a few key rooms, with the players making sanity rolls for their characters, but you would need to add more to make it interesting on the tabletop.

There's one plot error: At one point in the movie, Eleanor is staring at the tower and thinking to herself about the woman who died hanging from the tower, but that's in the novel; in the movie, the victim hangs herself on the inside from the platform!

My DVD version had a commentary track from director Robert Wise, scriptwriter Nelson Gidding, and actors Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson. Mostly Wise and Johnson. Surprisingly, the actors had little to say about their performances, though Richard had a lot to say about film-acting in general. Some amusing and contradictory remarks about how well the cast got along. The commentary is so quiet that I couldn't hear it from laptop or mobile DVD player; I had to use the big TV and crank the volume.

I've watched this movie many times, and never get tired of it. One of the great movies of its type. Scary because the characters are scared; very few special effects. The movie is today recognized as a classic horror film, but was not considered extraordinary when released in 1963.