Blu-Ray Review – The Haunting

The Haunting is a 1963 film directed by Robert Wise, based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Wise, of course, was one of the great old-fashioned directors—he did a bit of everything, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, the film noir Odds Against Tomorrow with Harry Belafonte, West Side Story and The Sound of Music—and a great film editor, responsible for editing Citizen Kane. He famously fell out with Orson Welles after re-editing The Magnificent Ambersons. This was not Wise’s first foray into horror films. He had previously directed The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff.

It’s pretty much a haunted house ghost story, with a team of paranormal investigators at the centre. The action takes place in a house that has a history of supernatural happenings. Dr  John Markway (Richard Johnson), who is the narrator, has to get the current inheritor, Mrs Sanderson (Fay Compton), to let him lease the house so he can conduct his investigation. She agrees, with the one condition that her heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn, later of Twin Peaks) is present during the proceedings, along with Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), who had poltergeist experiences as a child, and Theodora, a psychic played by Clare Bloom. Of course, when they all go into the haunted house, things then go bump in the night. Stuff moves around, there’s a spiral staircase that’s about to fall off its hinges, and no one is sure what will happen next.

There was an argument between Jackson and screenwriter Nelson Giddings, who came to the conclusion that it’s not a ghost story at all but that instead Lance was having a mental breakdown. He met with Jackson, who said that while that wasn’t a bad interpretation, she had intended the book to be about the supernatural. The script was changed slightly, leaving it vague as to what the truth is. The author also answered what an alternative title she would’ve used, she chose The Haunting to ensure it reflected the content.

It’s a solid film populated by good character actors. Bloom’s character is designed as a beatnik with a black turtleneck, putting it slightly into the Beatsploitation category. The film owes a lot to Val Lewton, who was the producer and writer of horror movies for RKO in the 40s. Lewton was the person who, gave Wise his break as a director, with The Curse of the Cat People (which in of itself was a pretty interesting film), whereas Welles had gotten him started as an editor. Wise brought all his years of experience in filmmaking to the project: it’s beautifully shot, with unusual angles, tracking shots, fisheye lenses, and wide 30mm lenses that were completely new and added a distorting effect to the image. Almost all the supernatural stuff is kept off screen, which goes back to Lewton’s style.

Tamblyn, who was under contract to MGM at the time, turned down the role at first. However, it ended up being one of his favourite films he appeared in.

The film was lived on, and is considered by some to be the best-haunted house film (although it’s obviously The Shining). Whatever your opinion, it’s a superbly filmed ghost story by a somewhat unsung master who never quite got the credibility he deserved as an auteur because he didn’t put a distinct style into every film. In a way this makes him a more interesting filmmaker, however, as his output was so diverse.

There’s a commentary track included, plus a poster. The package contains a DVD and digital copy alongside the Blu-Ray.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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