Monday, January 12, 2009

The Unseen Menace at Hill House


During his 45-year long career as a motion picture director, Robert Wise (1914-2005) worked in just about every imaginable genre: fantasy, science fiction, Westerns, boxing movies, multi-generational family sagas, soaps, war pictures, romances, historical epics. He showed a special affinity for film noir, and many of his movies in other genres, such as I Want to Live! and the heist movie Odds Against Tomorrow, have a distinct film noir look and sensibility. He came late to musicals, but the first one he directed, West Side Story (1961) won him his first Oscar for directing, and his second musical, The Sound of Music (1965), won him a second Oscar for directing four years later.

In between these two big-budget, large-scale productions, Wise went to England and directed a modestly-budgeted black-and-white film with no major stars, The Haunting (1963). This is perhaps the definitive example of the haunted-house movie, a venerable genre dating back at least to 1927's The Cat and the Canary and one of enduring popularity. Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, published in 1959, The Haunting has a simple premise. A psychical researcher, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), invites several people with confirmed psychic abilities to spend time with him in the supposedly haunted Hill House in New England as part of a research project to determine if any objective signs of haunting can be verified. In the end, only three people accept his invitation: Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a skeptical young man with no psychic abilities who is about to inherit Hill House, Theodora (Claire Bloom), a clairvoyant, and Nell Lance (Julie Harris), a depressed woman with a history of attracting paranormal phenomena.

As for plot, not a great deal really happens. The four characters meet, become acquainted, and spend several nights in the house. During this time strange things do indeed occur. The movie accepts as a given the existence of the supernatural. There is no uncertainty or ambiguity here as in The Innocents (1961), the wonderful movie based on the short novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, in which the film neither confirms nor denies the existence of the ghosts that Deborah Kerr believes haunt the house where she has been hired as governess to two strange children. In that movie the ghosts might be real or they might be figments of Kerr's troubled imagination; the viewer never knows for sure. In The Haunting there is never any doubt that some strange force, whether ghostly or otherwise, is present in Hill House and torments its inhabitants.

On the other hand, the exact nature of this mysterious force is never revealed, and it is never shown or made explicit in any way. This approach is not surprising, given Robert Wise's history. His first experiences as a credited director were at RKO for producer Val Lewton. Lewton was the man famous for the nine low-budget horror films he produced at RKO in the 1940's in which the horror, while quite real, was never actually shown but only suggested. Not only did this strategy keep the budget down by eliminating the need for special effects, but Lewton felt strongly that horror was most effective when only suggested and not seen. Typical of this approach is the first Lewton film in this vein, the classic The Cat People (1942).

Two of the three movies Wise directed for Lewton were horror films, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), co-directed with Gunther von Fritsch and ostensibly a sequel to The Cat People, although it has very little to do with the original movie, and The Body Snatcher (1945), based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson and inspired by the notorious Burke and Hare, graverobbers in 19th-century Scotland. Wise's decision to apply the Lewton approach to The Haunting was a prudent one. It reconfirmed Lewton's premise that the prospect of horror can be a good deal more frightening than the actual experience, that unseen menace can evoke a greater sense of dread in the characters and in the viewer than monsters that are shown, and that the human imagination's inchoate images of horror can be far more potent agents of terror than those that are explicitly manifest.

One reason this approach is so effective is that it requires the viewer to be more than just a passive recipient of horrifying images; it makes the viewer become an active participant in his or her own terrorization. The greatest source of fear then becomes fear itself. In The Haunting this is true not only of the audience but of the characters in the movie as well. The monstrous force in Hill House seems intent on teasing and terrifying these people without ever revealing itself. The movie's emphasis therefore is less on action than on characterization, less on what happens than on the effect events have on the people involved. This is especially true of Nell, and although The Haunting is technically an ensemble piece, it is her character above all else that powers the movie.

Nell narrates the movie through her thoughts and internal responses. She is in many ways an archetypal Shirley Jackson character. Like the main character in Jackson's best known and frequently anthologized short story "The Lottery," Nell is a woman who finds herself trapped in a situation of escalating unreality, dread, and horror, a situation in which a personally destructive outcome becomes more and more certain and unavoidable, until finally there is nothing to do but give in and let the inevitable happen. As in "The Lottery," this is a state of victimhood that seems paradoxically both random and predestined. Once the sequence of events is set in motion, the end result becomes inescapable. This loss of control over one's destiny surely lies at the heart of all horror stories: What could be more frightening than the prospect of losing control of one's life to an all-powerful force of destruction?

The menace to Nell comes not only from the outside, from the house itself, but also from the inside, for her own internal sense of fatalism drives her to reach out and embrace the destructive power whose presence in the house she senses. As in all great tragedies, Nell is at least in part the agent of her own destruction, driven by forces that originate deep within her and over which she has no control. She is a deeply troubled woman who feels guilt over her mother's death and extreme alienation from her family and the world around her. "For the past eleven years," she says at one point, "I've been walled up on a desert island. . . . The only thing that kept me going was the feeling that someday something extraordinary would happen."

When Nell learns of Hill House, even before she goes there, she becomes convinced almost to the point of obsession that her destiny lies there. And once she arrives, this conviction grows ever stronger. Her anxiety exacerbated by the sexual attraction she feels for Dr. Markway (and perhaps by a repressed response to the lesbianism of Theo), she becomes progressively more delusional, believing with the certainty of the truly paranoid that something malevolent in the house is targeting her.

Nell actually begins to feel that her consciousness is merging with whatever mystical force it is that inhabits the house: "I'm coming apart a little at a time," she says. "I'm disappearing inch by inch into this house." One of the eeriest sequences in the movie occurs when Dr. Markway's wife turns up unexpectedly and the house terrorizes her and attempts to drive her out. It is almost as if an act of thought-transference between Nell and the house occurs and the house, reacting to the jealousy and hostility of Nell toward Mrs. Markway, puts into effect Nell's subconscious wishes.

Wise's experience directing horror movies for Val Lewton is not the only of his formative experiences to influence The Haunting. Before becoming a director, Wise was for many years a film editor. Two of the last movies he edited before turning to directing were Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. (In fact, according to IMDb, Wise re-shot some of The Magnificent Ambersons, uncredited, after the movie was taken out of Welles's control by RKO.) If film noir got its attitude from John Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon, then it took its look from Citizen Kane. The Kane look informed much of Wise's work before West Side Story, and it is much in evidence in The Haunting, with its somber interiors, atmospheric use of light and shadow, and deep-focus photography perfected by Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

From The Magnificent Ambersons Wise retained the concept of the house itself as an additional character in the movie. Anyone who has seen that movie knows what a huge role the house plays in it. Built specifically for the film, the Amberson house was at the time one of the most elaborate sets ever constructed, each room actually having four walls and a ceiling. RKO reused it or portions of it for many other films, including The Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People. The grand staircase appears in Lewton's The Seventh Victim in two guises, first with its intricate stained-glass windows intact as part of the private school where Kin Hunter teaches, and again, its windows covered over with paneling, as the staircase of the apartment building where her sister lives.

In The Haunting, Hill House is literally a fifth main character. Like the Amberson house, it is a rambling Victorian Gothic mansion with a dark, ornately over-decorated, labyrinthine interior. But whereas the Amberson house is almost a place of refuge from the real world, Hill House is a sinister place whose inhabitants have a way of suffering tragic, violent, and sudden death, almost as though, as Nell believes, the house is possessed by an evil numinous presence that turns it into a malicious killer.

The final element that makes The Haunting such a good movie is Julie Harris, who plays the unstable Nell with such subtlety and precision. Harris is one of the great almost-unknown American actresses. She has appeared in many stage plays, movies, television episodes, and several television series. Her first movie was The Member of the Wedding (1952), in which she repeated her role as the tomboy Frankie in the play by Carson McCullers, which was based on her own novel. Harris was 27-years old when the movie was released, yet she convincingly plays a 12-year old girl. She was the first Sally Bowles on Broadway and in the movie version of I Am a Camera (1955). When she appeared in East of Eden (1955), she received top billing, above James Dean. From the late 1950's, she turned more to television and the stage. On television she has played Anastasia, Queen Victoria, Nora in A Doll's House, and Catherine Sloper in The Heiress. Her one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst, in which she played Emily Dickinson, is legendary, and she received a Tony award for it. In fact, she holds the record for more Tony nominations (ten) and wins (five) than any other performer.

Harris is especially known for playing introverted, sensitive, or neurotic roles—all qualities which made her the ideal choice to play Nell in The Haunting. It is to Wise's credit that he cast the most capable actress imaginable in the role of Nell and not a major star, for even with all its other strengths, for me the movie ultimately succeeds because of the complete authenticity of Harris's performance. Her ability to convince the viewer that this peculiar character is absolutely genuine takes the movie way beyond its genre. Harris makes you see from the beginning how Nell's fragility makes her susceptible to the destructive potential in the situation at Hill House, and she makes the gradual process of Nell's psychological disintegration vivid and believable.

It is illuminating to compare The Haunting to haunted-house movies with a more contemporary sensibility like the seminal Poltergeist (1982), a fine film in its own right. Poltergeist aims above all to thrill, and its thrills are the visceral kind. Its conventional middle-class characters and everyday suburban setting are intended in their ordinariness to create in the viewer a feeling of identification. Its very real monsters are shown in both their ethereal form and their gruesome physical form in specific detail. It supplies the viewer with a rational explanation for the events, an explanation that exists in a moral universe of guilt and punishment, a universe where bad things happen for comprehensible reasons and where chaos is a temporary anomaly that can be corrected.

The Haunting
does none of these things. Its aim is to chill the viewer by evoking a disturbing mood and atmosphere. Its characters are far from typical—a rich boy, an academic in an esoteric field, a bohemian lesbian, and a self-tormented neurotic. Its setting is not part of a mundane modern community but macabre, antiquated, and isolated. Its evil too is real but is never shown and never explained in rational or moral terms; it exists solely as an incomprehensible irruption of chaos into the familiar world. It has neither larger meaning nor explanation; it simply is.

Poltergeist
is the updated movie equivalent of a sensationalistic but ultimately reassuring horror comic book from the 1950's. The Haunting is the movie equivalent of a subtle work of genre fiction that combines psychology with the supernatural to unnerve the reader without providing reassurance that the menace it describes can ever be controlled. It aims to leave the reader—or in the case of the movie, the viewer—in an unsettled state, the only sense of resolution relief that it all happened to someone else.
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The 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a Turner Classic Movies production narrated and co-produced by Martin Scorsese, is highly recommended. Robert Wise appears in archival footage as one of those interviewed about Lewton. The Haunting was remade, by most accounts unsuccessfully, in 1999.

5 comments:

John said...

What a great article! "The Haunting" is my favorite ghost movie. The first time I saw this film, as a young teenager, I was scared out of my wits. I was home alone watching it and was never so frightened. Could not wait for my parents to come home!

Julie Harris was magnificent! I also thought Claire Bloom did a fine job, but it is clearly Harris, whose performance is so wonderful, that carries the film.

The 1999 remake was an abomination. Totally the opposite of the original. All special effects and no atmosphere.

Nice analogy between the house in “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Haunting.”

R. D. Finch said...

John, thank you. As always, your comments are most appreciated. I just saw "The Haunting" for the first time recently, but I knew as I watched it that I had to write about it.

Sam Juliano said...

This is one of your greatest pieces. This really puts the magnifying glass to Mr. Wise, who as you rightly say at the outset worked in every genre. I especially appreciated (and have long admired)his association with Val Lewton, and am a big fan of THE BODY SNATCHER, which contains Karloff's greatest performance.
Your entire discussion of horror being "suggested" rather than shown on screen is of course the central element of the Lewton series, and it's never more evident than in films like CAT PEOPLE, and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, the latter of which Wise directed.
Of course the greatest Lewton feature of all is his second, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, directed by Jacques Tourneur, which is as poetic as any film in the genre.
Of course, your rightly mention that Wise cut for Welles on KANE and AMBERSONS, which was quite an auspicious beginning.
But your thorough review here of THE HAUNTING as a work under those specifications is outstanding. Your discussion of Julie Harris, who started up in MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (which featured the young Brandon de Wilde)on through her radiant performance opposite James Dean in EAST OF EDEN to this film, where she admittedly excels.

The concept of the "house" as the "star" is a sound one, and it informs the essence of the film's central theme.

I guess the first film is this genre (after the one you mention here, CAT AND THE CANARY) would be THE OLD DARK HOUSE in 1932, by James Whale.

Sam Juliano said...

Perhaps the most famous of the films where "what is imagined" is far worse than "what we see" is in Jacques Tourneur's CURSE OF THE DEMON, a brilliant 1957 horror film, where ironically enough the studio-imposed "monster" was in a rare instance more horrifying than anything the mind could envision.

For most of the film what is "imagined" is terrifying, but when the monster is finally shown, it's a rare victory for the studio.

One of our 50's poll voters just placed this film at #1 of the decade, and while that is probably taking things a bit too far, in view of the competition, it's still a most interesting choice. It's a great film.

Sam Juliano said...

and yes I quite agree R.D. about the excellent doc on Lewton, which I own as well, as part of the Lewton DVD set. Wise is prominent there.

There is a volume on Lewton to die for, which I have here called VAL LEWTON: THE REALITY OF TERROR. This scholarly, beautifully-written treatment is by Joel E. Siegel (not the endearing late film critic who reviewed on television)