(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Nelson Gidding/based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson; cinematographer: Davis Boulton; editor: Ernest Walter; music: Humphrey Searle; cast: Julie Harris (Eleanor Vance), Richard Johnson (Dr. John Markway), Claire Bloom (Theodora), Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sannerson), Lois Maxwell (Grace Markway), Fay Compton (Mrs. Sannerson), Valentine Dyall (Mr. Dudley), Diane Clare (Carrie Fredericks), Ronald Adam (Eldridge Harper), Paul Maxwell (Bud Fredericks); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Wise; MGM; 1963)
“Knows how to draw fright from its haunted house story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music”/”The Body Snatcher”/”The Sand Pebbles”/”The Andromeda Strain”), a disciple of Val Lewton, directs this highly regarded horror thriller by creating a menacing claustrophobic atmosphere and building up the house as a place where evil resides (it was filmed in England). It’s a film that knows how to draw fright from its haunted house story about a group of city psychic researchers spending a weekend in the Hill House located in a remote part of New England to find out if the rumors are true that a ghost resides there. It’s sharply scripted by Nelson Gidding and is based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Though humorless and overwrought, it shines by keeping the spirit of Jackson’s great story, the fine shadowy photography by cinematographer Davis Boulton, the great craftsmanship of Wise that keeps this low-budget black-and-white film looking better than most modern films with all those modern gadgets at their disposal, the haunting psychological profile of the unhinged heroine makes for a fascinating case study and the superb overall performances, especially by Julie Harris–her performance is one of the best ever in a horror film.
It opens with a shot of the crooked looking ominous house and an off the screen narrator telling us in a sinister tone that the house has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. The narrator evokes a dark history of the house that was built by a misanthrope architect named Hugh Crain for his wife, but who crashed her carriage into a tree in front of the house when her horses suddenly bolted for no particular reason and she died before she ever lived in it. Hugh was left to raise his young daughter Abigail, and soon married a second time. Wife number two was suddenly stricken on top of the spiral staircase and fell to her death. Abigail then was abandoned by her father, who left for England and hired a live-in nurse to take care of her. Hugh died shortly thereafter in England. Abigail grew up as a recluse and even when old and an invalid slept in the nursery room (which later became known as the most evil room in the house). Abigail hired a young companion from town to look after her, but she was fooling around with a lad from town and did not answer Abigail’s knocks on the wall for help. Abigail as a result died and the companion inherited the house, but by living alone she was spooked out by ghosts and ended up hanging herself from a balcony in the library. The house was then legitimately inherited by a childless widowed relative named Mrs. Sannerson (Fay Compton), who remained living in Boston. She’s approached by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a confident Boston anthropologist, who propositions her with the idea of leasing her house and having his team of psychic researchers spend a weekend there to see if they could discover if the supernatural is present and if what’s said about the house being evil is true. The house owner agrees, interested herself in knowing if an after-world exists, but only as long as her nephew from out west, the cynical college student Luke Sannerson (Russ Tamblyn), who is scheduled to be the next in line to inherit the house, is allowed to come along. He’s only interested in the property value not going down because of its haunted house reputation and is a skeptic about parapsychology. The only other two who show up at the mansion are a chic lesbian ESP expert from Boston named Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the film’s vulnerable mentally unbalanced main character from the Midwest, Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris), who likes to be called by the affectionate nickname of Nell. Her claim to psychic fame is that as a child she saw a poltergeist and it caused a rock slide around her mother’s house, indicating she had telekinetic powers. The lonely, depressed and sexually repressed young woman had been nursing her difficult elderly mother for the the last 11 years until her recent death, which is similar to how Abigail died when her paid companion failed to answer her calls (Nell feels guilty that she’s responsible for her mother’s death). Feeling miserable that she’s never been on her own and lives with her nasty sister and brother-in-law, she’s exhilarated to get away from them and hopes her escape will lead to a romance and some adventure in her dull life.
Instead Nell finds the place creepy and she’s further frightened when the caretaker’s wife Mrs. Dudley warns her “No one lives any closer than town; no one will be around when it gets dark.” Nell does not take to Theo’s type (meant as a slur against her understated lesbian posturing) but is attracted to the smooth talking Markway, who mistakes the compassion he has for her as an expression of love and doesn’t realize he’s married. Markway’s skeptical wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) will make her entrance later on, and be given the nursery room to sleep in–whose reputation doesn’t bother her because she’s a non-believer and thinks her hubby is wasting his life away on this nonsense.
The film will go through a number of oddities about the house, such as its unexplained noises—thuds and screams, and that it’s built by avoiding right angles so every doorway is crooked and will open and shut by itself; one of the characters exclaims, all the wrong angles add up to one big distortion. Nell can’t make up her mind whether she loves or hates the house, but sees it as her big chance to find salvation and the house comes to mean everything to her–a matter of life and death.
Most of the fright scenes take place through suggestion. For Nell, the spirits that haunt the house have a tremendous effect. Whether these strange happenings are caused by ghosts (which never appear) or by Nell’s subconscious telekinesis or disturbed state of mind or active imagination is left up to the viewer to decide. But what’s for certain is that it’s impactful as a fright film, one of the better and more intelligent horror films, and it effectively pulls off its quota of frissons needed to meet the expectations of the horror film audience. The house itself becomes a character and is set against this mostly neurotic group of researchers.
REVIEWED ON 10/30/2006 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/