The transformation of the haunted-house subgenre began in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, where the house, rather than just the ghosts within it, demonstrated paranormal abilities. In his essay ‘Supernatural Horror’ H.P. Lovecraft argued that the point of Poe’s story was to show that the house and its inhabitants shared a common soul; by the time Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House in 1959 this reading had become so accepted that Jackson could largely dispense with ghosts and make the house the chief antagonist.
That presents certain problems for film, a medium where an eerie pale figure will always make a better villain than a supporting wall. In The Haunting, reissued on DVD, Blu-Ray and download by Warner Archive, Robert Wise makes light work of this limitation with the help of Elliott Scott’s extraordinary production design. In Wise’s film, Hill House really does seem alive and hostile, particularly with the help of Davis Boulton’s masterfully shadowy cinematography and subtle lens distortion effects. Some of the shots of the house’s grounds and statues are strangely close to Last Year at Marienbad.
Stephen King called Jackson’s novel one of the greatest horror novels of all time, despite the fact that its chief threat – that the evil house can somehow ‘claim’ the heroine Eleanor – strongly resembles the changes Stanley Kubrick made to King’s novel The Shining, which King was famously unhappy with. Wise wanted to take a step further, suggesting to Jackson in an early meeting that the whole story might be a projection of Eleanor’s damaged psyche. Jackson disagreed, though her book and the film are both ripe and ready for psychoanalytical readings.
I have to admit that I’m a bit more lukewarm on Jackson’s novel than King. The central story idea – a researcher, Dr. Montague, invites strangers to a haunted house for a psychic experiment – seems to me to deny the most powerful element of a haunted house story, the subversion of the idea of the home as a place of safety. Montague is presumably inspired by real-life psychic researchers like Harry Price, but he behaves more like a TV horror host (after Theodora makes a joke about drinking spirits, he replies “Spirits? Spirits? Yes, indeed. Of course none of us… certainly not.” Mwa-ha-ha-ha, etc.) The casting of the suave, urbane Richard Johnson as the renamed Dr. Markway immediately gives the film the edge over the book here.
The small central cast are uniformly strong; Claire Bloom steals scenes as one of the first clearly gay characters in a Hollywood horror film since the days of James Whale, and Wise’s West Side Story star Russ Tamblyn has fun as the carefree heir to the house, Luke. (It would be nice to think that, after his experiences at Hill House, Luke developed a lifelong interest in the paranormal which took him to a small northwestern logging town called Twin Peaks) Unquestionably the star turn, though, is Julie Harris as Eleanor. It’s not often that you can call a performance in a mainstream horror movie ‘brave’, but Harris struggled with depression throughout the shoot, and its effects make Eleanor’s fragility disturbingly believable. Wise must have felt like his psychological approach to Jackson’s novel was coming uncomfortably true.
Wise made The Haunting in between two of the most lavish Technicolor spectacles of the 1960s – West Side Story and The Sound of Music – but he stipulated in his contract that The Haunting had to be black and white. Having started his career under the tutelage of the legendary B-movie producer Val Lewton with Curse of the Cat People, he knew what an asset monochrome’s impenetrable shadows could be to a horror film. Indeed, one of the most viscerally wrong things about Jan de Bont’s much-derided 1999 remake is the colour: Hill House just looks too plush to be scary in colour. In Wise’s version, it’s certainly well-upholstered, but there’s also something brittle and comfortless about all those chandeliers and vintage armchairs. For all its luxury, it’s a bad place, where bad things happen.