Every fan of The Haunting has at least one story about seeing it, and often more than one. Here’s one of mine:
Years ago, G (my now husband) and I went to see it on a triple bill at an old movie palace in downtown Los Angeles. The college kids sitting behind us mocked it at first: old-fashioned, black-and-white, Julie Harris’s oddball whispered voiceovers.
But then, as the film went on, they got quieter and quieter. Finally, about half an hour in, one of them turned to the other and whispered, “Is it just me, or is this movie kind of getting to you?” And then they shut up for the rest of the film.
That’s the kind of horror movie The Haunting is. It’s not a slam-bang special effects spectacle, or a gross-out endurance test. It sneaks up behind you and lays a cold hand on your neck, whispering to you, asking if you’re sure you know what that noise in the dark was that you just heard.
A quick technical note before we begin: when you see the film, make sure you get a letterboxed copy and not one of the older pan-and-scans. You will literally miss out on half the movie if you don’t get the full widescreen version.
Director Robert Wise got his start working for Val Lewton‘s B-movie unit at RKO in the 1940s, where Lewton produced (and usually wrote) subtle horror films that are still classics today: Cat People. I Walked With a Zombie. The Seventh Victim. One of my favorites is Wise’s third film as a director, The Body Snatcher, with Boris Karloff as an absolutely chilling remorseless killer. Wise’s films all show a great attention to sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s best known today for his two blockbuster musicals, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
But Wise started as a horror guy with Lewton and, like his former colleague Jacques Tourneur, Wise decided to make a “Lewtonesque” horror film where the horror comes not from what the characters see, but from what they hear. In fact, you never see a single ghost in The Haunting. You hear them, the characters touch them, you see the physical effects of what they can do, but you never see one.
Except… it always seems like you’re about to see one just out of the corner of your eye, but the wandering camera never quite turns in the right direction. Watching it again, I noticed how the mirrors in the rooms are carefully placed so you can often see the actors in them, but only a part of them — their backs, their hands, their shoulders. Seeing the movement in the mirror distracts the viewer, drawing your attention (conscious or unconscious), and making you wonder if you’re finally going to see something. But you never do. I also noticed that the numerous potted palm trees placed in many of the rooms constantly sway in a slight breeze, again drawing the viewer’s attention and making us wonder just what is causing that motion.
As with most ghost stories, the outline of the plot doesn’t sound like much. The film opens with a sequence narrated by a man we will soon discover is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and psychic researcher who is trying to convince the current owner of Hill House to allow him to bring a team in to do experiments. He narrates the sequence of events at Hill House that gained it its awful reputation, barely able to conceal his glee at the possibility of being able to investigate a real haunted house. The director shows us three mysterious deaths at Hill House: a woman’s carriage crashing in the driveway, a woman falling down the stairs, a woman hanging herself in the library…