WELCOME TO JO GABRIEL & THE LAST DRIVE IN’S -500th POST!
Halloween is around the corner, I hear the rusty gates creaking, rattling of skeletons, the flapping wings of jolly bats, smell the candy corn and Hershey’s kisses and the owls are hooting, the spooks are spooking, and I sense the chill of night seeping through the curtains as the best holiday of the year is upon us!
What better way to honor such a ghoulishly ghostly and creepy eve than to explore one of the all time great movies, ghost story not withstanding in honor of my 500th post… yes long winded me has finally reached a milestone.
How do you begin to write about a film that continues to share the spot of favorite movie in my world alongside Rosemary’s Baby? What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Robert Wise’s masterwork that is The Haunting 1963. How do you even give suitable tribute to a timeless masterpiece that defies genre and deserves to be upheld as un-remakable.
Incidentally I was reading Pam Keesey’s terrific essay The Haunting and the Power of Suggestion: Why Robert Wise’s Film Continues to ‘Deliver the Goods’ to Modern Audiences. Keesey points to a comment that Stephen King makes, while admiring Wise’s film he remarks, “Something is scratching at the ornate, paneled door… Something horrible… but it is a door Wise elects never to open.” Once again Pam Keesey cites Wise’s influence as written about in Edmund G. Bansak’s wonderful Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, one of my favorite books in my library. Wise finally found a film that could pay homage to his mentor Val Lewton.
“Lewton trademarks–the reverence for the underdog, the focus upon humanist concerns, the alliance between danger and darkness, the depiction of fate as an unstoppable force, and, of course the preoccupation with things unseen.”-Bansak
Sorry, Stephen King, but we don’t always need to see the monster– Val Lewton understood that well, and managed to create some of the most compelling moments of terror for us, just by suggesting, and triggering our own innate fears of the unknown. This is one of the most essential working mechanisms of Wise’s The Haunting that has withstood the perils of time.
Robert Wise worked as an editor among Val Lewton’s magic team of artists. He learned the secret to any good work of fantasy/horror/suspense/noir is to suggest BUT not reveal what is the heart of the narrative on the screen itself but allow our own subconscious fears and anxieties to do its work. Much credit has to be given to Nelson Gidding’s (I Want to Live! 1958, The Andromeda Strain 1971) remarkable screenplay.
Robert Wise, while working on West Side Story, picked up a copy of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story. In an interview Wise recalled, “I was reading one of the scary passages–hackles were going up and down my neck–when Nelson Gidding (screenwriter)… burst through the door to ask me a question, I literally jumped about three feet out of my chair. I said, ‘If it can do that to me sitting and reading, it ought to be something I want to make a picture out of.”
And I can say without any doubts, that I’m with Robert Wise- when I was little, watching The Haunting even during the day, sun shining outside, my heart would pound and I would feel a restless shudder as I sat quietly watching what I consider to still be one of the scariest films of all time. And though I’ve seen it again and again, I still feel said hackles up the back of my neck. The shivers of fear and dread, and a true sense of terror that grips you every single time!
The confluence of artistry, Robert Wise’s sensibility that he synthesized from working with Val Lewton, Jackson’s incredible ghost story, Gidding’s compelling script, the collective of ensemble performances by all the great actors involved, the effective score by Humphrey Searle, and idiosyncratic and visually disorienting cinematography by Davis Boulton (Stage Fright 1950, I Thank A Fool 1962).
All these elements went in to create one masterfully crafted visual narrative, psychological maneuver, tale of terror and one memorable landscape of uncanny dread and paranoia.
Dr. John Markway: [voice-over] “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”
The Haunting (1963) could be said to be the penultimate example of ‘nothing up that proverbial sleeve’, and ‘it’s what you don’t see’ cinematography. The visual narrative is what makes it timelessly heart-pounding to watch and what gives it an artistic atmosphere of misdirection, anxiety, hysteria, dread, romanticism, and well, yes, that “haunting’ feeling.
Memorable scenes of veiled terror lurking in the corners, or beyond the massive wooden door frames. The allusion to the various cold spots underscored by trilling piano keys. Stark frames that capture a portion of the house, as if itself a live entity. Dr. Markway refers to the house being ‘born bad’. The manifestation of the angry and tyrannical Hugh Crane who built an evil house. There are so many moments of The Haunting that have stayed with me for years. And I must admit that I usually watch it several times a year, like one makes pot roast because the craving strikes you at that moment. “It’s time to watch The Haunting again,” is heard in our house. I can never forget the moment when Julie Harris as Nell awakens from a frightening moment where we hear a child’s muffled laughter swiftly turning to a menacing scream. She tells Theo that she’s breaking her hand, she’s holding it so tight. The camera only focuses on Nell and her outstretched arm in the darkness, swallowed up in her ornate room, like a fly in a spider’s web. When she can no longer bare Theo’s tight grip, she screams “Stop it!” and turns the light on, only to find in horror that she’s been holding a ghostly hand. “Who’s hand was I holding?” Theo is shown across the room, still lying in bed unaware that Nell had been going through any nightmarish ordeal.
In other moments, the visual perspective seems to warp all we see, pulling us into the dis-ease of Hill House.From the moment Eleanor pulls up to Hill House, the point of view is skewed so that we are watching Eleanor who is also being watched by the house. It’s a startling moment as she realizes, “It’s staring at me.”
And of course there’s the eerie and otherworldly invisible assault on the two women as something unseen pounds on the doors with a ‘cannonball’ Disembodied laughter, scratching, growling and Baroque style brass doorknobs with Medusa’s face that turn ever so slowly, as if something trying to gain entry into the room.
There’s also emphasis of a powerfully imposing use of matrix work utilizing the inherent designs of the interiors itself, textiles and wallpaper and wood carvings to create diabolical faces watching back at us. The stone and bronze cherubs and gargoyles that inhabit Hill House, the myriad of mirrors and long winding hallways mixed with the turbulent sky outside the towering Hill House.
The iconic scene where the door seems to expand as if breathing was actually two technical people who used 2×4’s to push into the middle to create the effect. It’s that simple and yet, is one of the most lasting scenes in film history.
Based on the book by Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House, which is a hell of a read, but as a rarity, the film invokes the uncanny of the story even better than the novel.
“SCREAM…no one will hear you! RUN…and the silent foosteps will follow, for in Hill House the dead are restless!”
I’ve had any number of people over the years say to me, ‘You know, Mr. Wise, you made the scariest picture I’ve ever seen and you never showed anything. How’d you do it?” And it goes back to Val Lewton, by the powers of suggestions” -Robert Wise in Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career
The always poised Richard Johnson plays the very earnest Dr. John Markway a researcher in the paranormal who wants to use Hill House an imposing Gothic New England house as the main epicenter for his studies in the supernatural. Based on the legend of all the ghostly going’s on surrounding said place, Markway gets Mrs, Sanderson (Fay Compton) to agree to lease the house to him for one year. Though she is the voice of caution- Mrs. Sanderson: “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
Markway initially amasses a collection of names of potential participants in his experiment as we see he chalks their names on his blackboard. Eventually the names drop off and there are only two women who arrive to help him uncover the truth behind the legend of Hill House… is it truly haunted?
Theodora: “Haven’t you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just… catch something out of the corner of your eye?”
Mrs. Sanderson sends along her cocky nephew out of the Midwest, Luke (Russ Tamblyn) to accompany Dr. Markway since one day Luke hopes to inherit Hill House. The exterior of Hill House is an actual Hotel called the Ettington Park Hall Hotel in Stratford Upon Avon in England. The interior sets were brilliantly designed by John Jarvis.
We meet Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance (Julie Harris) in her sister’s living room which doubles as her bedroom. The very hypersensitive Nell is being tortured by her sister, brother-in-law and their precocious brat of a child who insists on playing a child’s record march consisting of inane flutes and snare rattles, causing a pervasive tenor of chaos, madness and dysfunction. Like nails on a blackboard, the little tune serves not only to cause psychic aural conflict and irritate Nell, but it also pulls us into her sense of being trapped in a claustrophobic world where she must break free. Nell steals the family car and hits the road with all her belongings in a box, driving out of Boston out into the light of the New England air toward something, anything even the unknown which would be better than the captivity she’s been experiencing. She is one of the people Dr. Markway has invited to participate in exploring Hill House.
Upon her arrival she is confronted by two of the locals who harbor a maniacal animosity toward city people. The Dudleys played by Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall ( Who was perfectly sinister as Jethrow Keane in Horror Hotel 1960, yet another favorite classic horror film of mine.)
Mrs. Dudley takes care of the interior of Hill House as no one else in the village dare come near the place, setting out the meals but being very clear about leaving before it get’s dark. The sardonic grin on her face as she divulges to Nell and Theo her little creepy intoned soliloquy… “No one will come any further than town…”
No one will hear you scream… Mrs. Dudley’s expression is somewhat a combination of that intense little fellow, the prairie dog from the viral youtube video where he turns around and stares, and Lewis Caroll’s Chesire Cat.
Anyhoo… Markway leads the other three on a journey of discovery of the unknown. He chose Eleanor ‘Nell’ because of her poltergeist experience that occurred when rocks pelted her family home for a week. Eleanor suffered from a tremendous guilt complex shortly after losing her chronically ill mother whom she cared for passed away and this puts Nell on the edge of breakdown. Theodora is known quite well for her powers of ESP. Luke Sanderson is the skeptical playboy of the foursome…
The ‘Adventurous All’ get together, trading small conversations and observations, while Hill House begins to reveal it’s cold heart. Or is the house truly a bad place? Built by a man who used odd angles, and macabre embellishments, he created one ‘distortion as a whole” as Nell comments. Hugh Crane, a man who was a religious zealot, entrapped his daughter in the foul house until her death as an old maid. She grew up and grew old in the house, where a series of mysterious accidents, suicides and deaths ensued… Hill House is the epitome of “Dark spaces’ or “Bad spaces’.
Eleanor Lance: “Can’t you feel it? It’s alive… watching.”
Hill House does begin to show particular attention toward the vulnerable, fragile and bedeviled Nell. But…
That begs a larger question. Can a house be born bad, or has Nell’s neurotic fixations and need to belong cause her to unravel the mysteries of the place much quicker? Is it just her longing and alienation that has created a certain madness or is it both a ghost story and a story of abject loneliness and psychosis? Much like a Lewton story, there is the feeling of intense loneliness, imbalance in the environment that is either mental or perceived to be reality, and an ambiguity that links these elements to the supernatural world.
There are definitely themes of repressed sexuality exhibited by the presence of the very stylish Mary Quant sporting Theo (Claire Bloom), who it is heavily suggested is a sophisticated Greenwhich Village Sapphic who toys with the uptight Nell. When asked what frightens Theo she glumly replies-“Of knowing what I want.”
Something that begins to cause friction between the ensemble because Nell has fallen into the well of deep delusion and longing, for Dr. Markway not realizing that he is not just only interested in her as a test subject but he is already married.
Poor Nell is a tragic Gothic figure, whose famous inner monologues might slightly touch the third rail of hysterical camp, yet somehow manages to become a restrained performance of inner turmoil and madness that perfectly co-exists parallel to the odd and uncanny manifestations escalating in Hill House. With a rainstorm of inner monologues to guide us through the treacherous darkness.
In Scarlet Street Magazine, Julie Harris stated that she would have played the character of Nell differently. “Well, I would’ve been odder looking as Eleanor,” Harris said. “I think she was too ordinary. I just wanted to be — odder.” That’s okay Julie Harris, who we sadly lost on August 24th of last year, no one could have done a better job of bringing Eleanor Lance to life than you did… Your Eleanor Lance will eternally remain the central tragic figure of the play, as Pam Keesey calls her the ‘persecuted innocent.’
By the end of the film, Luke who is the cynic of the bunch, tells us…” It ought to be burned down… and the ground sowed with salt.”