Skip to main content

It ought to be burned to the ground and sowed with salt.

The Haunting
(1963)

(SPOILERS) Is it bad that, as far as the haunted house subgenre goes, I prefer The Legend of Hell House to Robert Wise’s very respectable, mature adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s then-recent novel? Both are based on a team of investigators setting up shop in a famously haunted abode – Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape does something similar – but John Hough’s film of Richard Matheson’s novel simply wants to have unapologetic fun with the premise. The Haunting goes for a less tangible vibe – night and day compared to the recent Netflix incarnation – but I’m not sure it quite pulls it off.

It may be this element that Pauline Kael recognised when she recounted how a section of the audience she saw the film with “wasn’t merely bored, it was hostile – as if the movie, by assuming interests they didn’t have, made them feel resentful or inferior… In their terms they were cheated: nothing happened”. That ambiguity isn’t a problem with either of the other versions of the source material, of course. On the other hand, neither are nearly as good as Wise’s picture.

Nelson Gidding originally fashioned his adaptation in very much a metaphorical fashion; everything that transpires is within the mind of Eleanor (Julie Harris), who is experiencing a nervous breakdown, and those she encounters and the phenomena she experiences are reflections of the institution (Richard Johnson’s Dr Markway becomes her shrink). He backpedalled on this when Jackson told him the novel wasn’t intended to be read that way, although it’s still easy to seem much of that interiority in the character of Eleanor, and the subjective gaze she’s given throughout.

Indeed, it’s surely no coincidence that MCU-hating Martin Scorsese, who vouched for the film as his all-time favourite horror, should have been attracted to schlocky detective noir disappointment Shutter Island, which operates on exactly that basis (but to the point of inanity). There’s much in The Haunting that’s masterfully executed: Claire Bloom’s barely unstated lesbian Theo (“The world’s full of unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes, they’re called. You, for instance”), adopting a playful manner towards the very literal, open Eleanor; Johnson’s Markway is your definitive classic cool-customer unflustered investigator (you watch and wonder why he didn’t have a long career as a leading man); Wise’s approach to the house is winningly perverse, making it bright, opulent and well-lit, rather than sinister, dusty and moody. Sure, there are Dutch angles and fish-eye lens, but tonally he’s more on board with the distanced Markway than diving into the first-person narrator perspective of Eleanor.

On that level, I’m inclined towards Russell Evans’ assumption that “few people truly find the film shocking or disturbing”. If Spielberg told Wise it was the scariest film ever made, he was simply blowing smoke up his ass. Throughout this visit to The Haunting, I was in the mind of how much more effective and genuinely unsettling Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, made two years earlier, is. A film that also functions along a divide between its protagonist’s perception of the real and imagined, one hinging on their sexual repression. I think, if The Haunting comes up short in comparison, it’s because Gidding’s screenplay bashes us round the head with Eleanor’s neurosis to the point that she begins to become tiresome, rather than someone we’re sympathetic towards. On one level, Harris’ performance is supremely compelling, but it’s also overpowering, cumulatively testing our patience (akin to Lambert being the main character in Alien, rather than Ripley).

The early scenes of Eleanor breaking away from an oppressive family put us on her side, and her car journey interior monologue is suggestive of Marion Crane in Psycho, but the twist is that she’s her own Norman Bates, that her sibling’s apparent berating and character assassination is really protecting her fragile mental state.

That there are spooky goings-on in the house as experienced by others (spectral hounds, unaccounted for noises and movements) might be seen as relating to Eleanor’s history of poltergeist phenomena as much as being engineered by Hill House (“It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad”). And whatever happens to Mrs Markway (Lois Maxwell), evidently turning up at the house because she suspects hubby of inappropriate behaviour in the name of scientific investigation, could simply reflect Markway’s psychology-tinged warning to Luke (Russ Tamblyn) earlier: “A closed mind is the worst defence against the supernatural”. Yet it’s notable that the backdrop of the house allows for the characters’ underlying sexual psychodramas to play out, except – ironically – for presumably the youngest and so most “piqued” (Luke).

One can see here where Mike Flanagan might have got his idea for the house as (SPOILER) a comforting presence for a distressed soul. Even though there’s never any characterisation or presentation of spooks, Eleanor’s conviction that “I’m the one who’s supposed to stay here” resolves itself with her car wreck and the conclusion that “It was what she wanted. She had no place else to go. The house belongs to her now too”. Which you wouldn’t call upbeat, exactly, but certainly as ambiguous as the rest of the picture.

Wise shot the film in the UK, even though it’s set in New England, and with Johnson’s lead and support from Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the accent-sporting housekeepers, it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be set in the States. At times too, it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be a horror film. I suspect this lack of emphasis on “cheap” tactics is part of the reason it’s held in such esteem. But as good as it is, it might have been even better if the ambiguity of the supernatural had extended to the presentation of Eleanor’s unsettled mental state. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa