Retro Movie Review: The Haunting (1963)

April 15, 2011

The Haunting 1963by Peter Nielsen

”An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”

These ominous words are spoken by Dr. Markway at the very start of the movie. His research into the supernatural has led him to Hill House, where he intends to hold an investigation to prove the existence of ghosts or spirits. Since it has a history of insanity and violent deaths, he has a feeling that it’s the perfect place for such an experiment. He has put together a small group of people to help him and also to make his claims more legitimate.

There’s Theodora (Theo), a clairvoyant and Luke, the young heir to Hill House and a sceptic at heart. There’s Dr. Markway himself and finally Eleanor Lance, an insecure spinster who’s had some experience with the supernatural at a young age, and somehow seems to be attuned to the house and its inhabitants.

Not a place you'd want to spend the night.

Not a place you’d want to spend the night.

The Haunting is a movie I’ve seen many times and it never fails to scare me and fill me with an overwhelming sense of unease. The first time I saw it many years ago it scared the crap out of me. Nowadays not so much, but still…

It’s a bit slow in setting up the characters, especially Eleanor, but we need the backstory to fully understand her. She is after all the one the story centers on. Well, actually it’s the house itself that is the main character, but we’ll get back to that. Eleanor, very well played by Julie Harris (East of Eden, Gorillas in the Mist) is a woman who alone has spent all her adult life taking care of her sick mother.

This ordeal has left her with a very frail psyche and she’s not good at social interaction with other people. As time progress, this puts strain on the other members of the group too. It’s sometimes thick enough to cut with a knife. Eleanor takes a liking to Dr. Markway, which seems to enrage Theodora and this builds up more tension which further fuels the aforementioned unease.

Nell & Theo getting terrorized

Nell & Theo getting terrorized

Claire Bloom who plays Theodora has also been in Look Back in Anger and Clash of the Titans (the original, not the new CGI spectacle). Dr. Markway is played by Richard Johnson who, among many other movies, has starred in the screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. His wife, Grace, is played by the lovely Lois Maxwell whom most of you know as Miss Moneypenny. The fourth member, Luke, is portrayed by the great Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and starts out as a total sceptic but slowly realizes that there might be more to the house than he first thought.

This brings us to Hill House itself. This eerie old mansion would scare the pants off of anyone stupid enough to spend a night there. I must be honest here… it really is an intensely scary building. It seems to always be watching you and as in Eleanor’s case, drawing you into it. Much like the movie itself does. Once it’s got you, it never lets you go!

There's some scaaaaary stuff going on here.

There’s some scaaaaary stuff going on here.

The remake, starring Liam Neeson, never succeeds in doing that. It relies mostly on CGI and, in doing so, forgets the story and therefore ceases to be scary. Sure it has some jump-up moments, but you never get the feeling of dread that the original conveys so darn well. The extraordinary use of camera-angles, sound-effects and shadows makes you feel like you’re inside someone’s mad imagination and there are a couple of scenes that will seriously send chills up and down your spine.

The director Robert Wise has done a terrific job in turning Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House into one of the top ten scariest movies I’ve ever seen. He has also directed such diverse films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I can’t leave without mentioning Mrs. Dudley. She’s one of the caretakers of Hill House, her husband being the other, and Holy Crap is she creepy… With an almost sadistic smile she informs the guests of her routines. She always leaves before it gets dark and she lives in town. It’s a long way to town and no one can hear them if they need help, but no one lives nearer than that.

No one WANTS to be nearer than that… at night… in the dark!

The Haunting (1963) Trailer



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