Horror Review: The Haunting (1963)

Hill House has stood for about 90 years and appears haunted: its inhabitants have always met strange, tragic ends. Now Dr. John Markway has assembled a team of people who he thinks will prove whether or not the house is haunted.

Let me start by saying that Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” is one of my all time favourites.

I’m not the only one either, my favourite writer, Stephen King, has often cited it as a huge inspiration. I must’ve read the book about three times before I eventually got to watch this film on a lazy Sunday afternoon (films weren’t always available instantly kids). It would soon become one of my favourite black and white films.

Here is a film that is not far from celebrating it’s sixtieth anniversary and it’s still showing film-makers how it’s done. This is a perfect example of how to slowly build suspension, create tension amongst the cast and also manage to keep the viewer on edge right until the very end, a rarity I’m sure you’ll agree.

Director Robert Wise apparently took this project very seriously and paid meticulous attention to each and every scene. This was also applied to the small cast, he kept them all together in the various rooms of the house, trying his best to emphasize the claustrophobic tone. I think we can agree it worked extremely well.

Talking of the cast, each character is played perfectly, the characters are brought to life magnificently. But you have to remember the house itself is also part of the cast and once again Robert Wise used his genius and made it the scariest character in the film with his use of camera angles and sound effects.

“The Haunting” is a true classic in every sense of the word, if you haven’t seen this then do yourself a favour and make it a priority. Turn off the lights, maybe light some candles, however you create an atmosphere, and get ready to watch a masterclass in suspense.

If you want to see “The Haunting” trailer then just click on the video below:

Miscellaneous facts about the film:

To make Thedora appear more bohemian, beatnik clothing designer Mary Quant was hired to design mod clothing specifically for Claire Bloom.

Robert Wise shot the film in black and white because he loved the depth and rich atmospheric quality of black and white for this genre of film and felt it would be perfect to enhance the moody psychological quality of the story. In addition, the studio contract specified the film must be shot in black and white.

Director Martin Scorsese named this his favourite horror film.

Claire Bloom was intrigued to the play the role of a woman who was attracted to another woman. She said she got along with everyone on the set, except for Julie Harris, who tried everything to avoid her and not talk to her. At the end of the shoot, Harris went over to Bloom’s house with a present and explained that the reason she had kept to herself was to stay in character, because Harris’ role in the film was that of an outsider that none of the others understand or will listen to. Bloom was happy to hear the real reason behind Harris’ behaviour, since Bloom stated that she really liked Harris and could not understand what she herself had done wrong to be treated like that by her co-star.

Director Robert Wise read a review of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” in Time Magazine and decided to get the rights to the novel. He later met the writer herself to talk about ideas for the film. He asked her if she had thought of other titles for the novel, because the title would not work for the film. She told him that the only other title she had considered was simply “The Haunting,” so Wise decided to use it for the film.

Richard Johnson later said he received invaluable film acting advice from Robert Wise. Wise told him to keep his eyes steady, to blink less, and to try not to time his acting (Wise said he would take care of that in the editing room). Johnson also credited Wise with helping him to craft a much more natural acting performance.

Russ Tamblyn was not very interested in playing the role of Luke Sanderson until “MGM” threatened him to resign his contract. Years later he confirmed that Sanderson was his best role by far for years.

Russ Tamblyn has an uncredited cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist in the 2018 TV series “The Haunting of Hill House (2018).”

Nelson Gidding’s initial concept for the script was that Eleanor had experienced a nervous breakdown and had been hospitalized, and that the house was the hospital, the other characters were staff and patients, and the booms and knockings were the result of shock treatments. The entire story would have been inside the head of a mentally ill woman. However, upon discussing this with author Shirley Jackson (who simply regarded it as a haunted-house story), he decided to backpedal on that idea, but still emphasized Eleanor’s crumbling sanity in his final script.

The other cast members enjoyed working with Julie Harris, but they believed her sense of isolation was self-imposed. Claire Bloom said that Harris “wouldn’t” talk to her, and Russ Tamblyn found Harris “aloof.” Bloom, Tamblyn and Richard Johnson would spend time together during breaks from shooting and have dinner together often, but Harris rarely joined them. Bloom said later that she eventually realized that this was simply Harris’s way of approaching the part to make her performance more effective, and she didn’t take Harris’s standoffishness personally. Harris had gone to Bloom after filming and told her she felt isolation was necessary for the role… and they became friends.

Robert Wise was in post-production on “West Side Story (1961)” when he read a review in Time magazine of Shirley Jackson’s novel, “The Haunting of Hill House.” Wise read the book and found it frightening. He passed it to screenwriter friend Nelson Gidding, whom he had worked with on “I Want to Live! (1958).” Gidding did a full story treatment for Wise before proceeding to work on the adaptation

The famous sharp contrast of the house against the dark sky and the clouds was created by the use of infrared film stock.

Every member of the cast enjoyed working with Robert Wise, who had a long-standing reputation as a strong director with great instincts and no ego. Julie Harris remembered him as a “calm gentleman” who never got ruffled by anything, and Claire Bloom found working with him “marvellous.”

According to Julie Harris, film censors demanded that Theo never be shown to touch Eleanor, in order to keep the lesbianism less obvious. Nevertheless, they touch several times, including when Theo is sitting on her bed. The theme is reinforced when Eleanor calls Theo a mistake of nature.

For some of the scenes in which characters are tormented by loud ghostly sounds coming from the house, Robert Wise had the sounds on playback so that the actors could react to them authentically. It was a technique that they found very useful and effective for creating just the right mood of terror.

The script originally contained a scene early in the film in which Theodora is shown in her apartment in the city. It is clear from the context that she has just broken off with her female lover: “I hate you” is written on the mirror in lipstick. Theodora is yelling curses at her out the window and more. However, Wise decided to cut the scene, believing it to be too explicit for a film that worked hard to make things implicit.

Most of the film was shot through lenses that add a curvature to the walls, making the house seem even more strange.

According to Robert Wise, the spiral staircase provided some unique challenges. “It was scary when you were up on that thing and it was rocking around. The one shot we did on it that fascinates people the most is when the camera is at the bottom and goes up. We designed the banister of the stairway to be so wide and thick that it would fit a small rig with wheels on it – a little, light dolly that would hold a hand-held camera. We had our camera on that and we had a control wire underneath, all the way down. We simply took the camera up to the top on this rig, started it, rolled it down, and then reversed the film. It was all done on that balustrade.”

Julie Harris agreed to do the film in part because the role was complex and the idea of the house taking over Eleanor’s mind was interesting, but she also chose it because she had a long-standing interest in parapsychology.

The exterior of Hill House in the film was not a set, but an actual house (Ettington Park Hotel in Warwickshire, England), although all the interiors were carefully designed sets on sound stages. While shooting exterior night scenes on location at the real house, Russ Tamblyn has shared a story of having chosen to take a stroll through a cemetery at the rear of the property and having had an experience nearly as terrifying as the film itself. You can hear his story on the commentary track included on the DVD of the film.

The screenplay made many changes to the story. The number of characters was cut down, the backstory was significantly shortened, most of the supernatural events depicted in the novel were kept off-screen, and the greater part of the action was set inside the house to heighten the audience’s feeling of claustrophobia. Eleanor’s role as an outcast was also emphasized. The character of Theodora was given a sharper, slightly more cruel sense of humour in order to make her a foil for Eleanor but also to heighten Eleanor’s outsider status. The role of Luke was made more flippant, and Dr. Markway (Montague in the novel) was made a more confident character.

In the 50th issue of Scarlet Street magazine, Julie Harris revealed that she wished she could go back and play the character differently. “Well, I would’ve been odder looking as Eleanor,” she said. “I think she was too ordinary. I just wanted to be — odder.”

Robert Wise had been on a contract with “MGM” and owed them one more film, so he brought “The Haunting” to them. They would only give him 1 million dollars to shoot the film, and Wise insisted that he needed a bigger budget. In the end he brought the project over to “MGM” in London, where they were willing to give him 1.05 million, among other cost savings and tax breaks, so he accepted and decided to do the film in England.

In part, the decision to cast Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson was because of Eady Levy requirements that the cast be partly British.

The walls of Elanor’s bedroom have a floral design in white plaster tiles; one that is rigid and somewhat strained. The walls of Theo’s bedroom are covered in wallpaper with a leaves design that is bohemian and with a hidden wildness, reflecting her character, Dr. Markway’s wallpaper has an alternating design of twisting leaves on one panel and vases on the other, reflecting his scientific mindset of taking the disordered and putting it in order.

Robert Wise made the film as a dedication to the memory of his mentor, Val Lewton, who had died 12 years earlier.

Robert Wise called the film one of his top ten or twelve favourites among the films he made, commenting that it was his favourite filmmaking experience.

The names on the blackboard in Dr. Markway’s office are all friends or family of writer Nelson Gidding. Albert Trepuk was his stepfather, Charles Stern, Ruth Murray, Rufus Matthewson, and Paul Kirschner were friends, and Joshua Walden was his then 14-year-old son.

According to Russ Tamblyn, Robert Wise approached a society that kept track of British haunted houses, and they gave him a list of such places.

Robert Wise had seen Julie Harris in a play and decided she was perfect for the leading role. She later confessed that shooting the picture had been very hard on her. She saw her character, Eleanor, in a different way than director Wise but didn’t feel it was her place to disagree, so playing the part was a struggle for her. Still, she claims Wise was a perfect gentleman and they remained friends for decades.

When searching for the door to the dining room, Elanor remarks the situation is like “the lady and the tiger.” She is referring to the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902), published in 1882. In the story, a person accused of a crime is brought into a public arena and must choose one of two doors. Behind one door is a lady whom the king has deemed an appropriate match for the accused; behind the other is a fierce, hungry tiger. If the accused chooses the door with the lady behind it, he is deemed innocent and must immediately marry her, but if he chooses the door with the tiger behind it, he is deemed guilty and is immediately devoured by it.

Susan Hayward was reported to be in the running for one of the two female leads.

Writing the screenplay took about six months.

Robert Wise cast Richard Johnson after seeing him in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Devils.

Eleanor drives a two-toned 1960 Hillman Husky Series II.

During the shoot, Julie Harris suffered from depression, and believed that her co-stars did not take the film as seriously as she did. At times, she would cry in her makeup chair prior to the day’s shoot.

Included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

Robert Wise approached “United Artists” with the project, but after much delay they turned him down.

The infamous “bending door” scene was achieved by constructing a prop door composed of laminated wood. While filming, the bending effect was cause by having a strong stagehand push on the door with a timber.

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