Monday, August 31, 2009

Unseen Menace at Hill House: Robert Wise's The Haunting


NOTE: I am reprinting this post from January as part of the Octopus Cinema blog-a-thon on Robert Wise. For more on Robert Wise at Octopus Cinema, click here .


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, tearjerkers, war pictures, romances, historical epics. In his early career he showed a special affinity for film noir, and many of his later 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 1940s 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, grave robbers 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 manifest. In fact, Wise has called The Haunting "almost [a] tribute to Lewton and my days with him."

One reason the Lewton 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, Wise has said in interviews that when The Magnificent Ambersons was taken out of Welles's control by RKO and re-edited after disastrous previews, he shot additional scenes, uncredited, to cover gaps in continuity.) 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 (and in the process received an Oscar nomination as best actress). 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, tied with Angela Lansbury) 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 specific detail in both their ethereal form and their gruesome physical form. 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 1950s. 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.

4 comments:

John said...

R.D. a great essay on what I personally consider the best ghost story ever made into a film. This film scared the hell out of me as young teenager, home alone one Saturday night! The pounding on the walls was more horrific than Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers could ever be.
“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.”
You get to the heart of the horror right here in this statement.
Julie Harris, as you rightly praise, is such a wonderful actress. She comes across as possessing an inner strength and is certainly one of the great talents of the American theater. She also possesses a subtle beauty that grows on you. Even in a throwaway film from the 1960’s that I recently saw called “The Split” with Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine and others, where she played against type as the leader of a gang of criminals she stole the show.
Robert Wise was a versatile director who for many years was maligned by critics for works like The Sound of Music and The Sand Pebbles. He deserves better treatment as you so aptly prove here.

movieclassics said...

This sounds like a great film and after reading your review I will have to track it down - I do admire Val Lewton and to have him working with Robert Wise is an intriguing combination. I was surprised to realise just what a wide range of films Wise made, and really that he isn't better known, when you think how many classics he directed. I'll be following the blogathon at the Octopus Cinema site with great interest. Judy

Joshua said...

A fascinating take on one of the most powerful ghost stories of all time. I don't know what it is about The Haunting, but it still has the power to frighten me all these years later. It really shows the progress Wise made from the beginning of his career and the influence those early Lewton films had on him. As you say, the emphasis is markedly on characterization, and that's what makes his horror films so frightening.

Troy Olson said...

R.D. -- wow, that was a perfect writeup on this great film. The movie never lets off the tension -- while watching it felt as if I was holding my breath throughout, with the only catharsis being when it finally ends.

And that's just the outermost layer of the film. The psychological and personal themes add to it such that is s superior example of what can be done with the genre.

As John states above, that scene with the pounding on the walls scared the hell out of me and I watched it for the first time at the age of 30!

Oh, and avoid the remake at all costs, as they replace the unknown dread of the original with a bunch of hacky CGI effects and throw any subtlety waaaaay out the window.