Forget the effects laden 1999 monstrosity with Liam Neeson. (I saw it once and have mercifully succeeded in wiping it from my recollection.) Forget also last year’s stylish and promising Netflix version, which started strong but ended up making weak new age pablum of the classic story.
For a first rate, reasonably authentic and genuinely chilling screen telling of Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, look no further than the 1963 version with the trimmed down title THE HAUNTING, starring Julie Harris and directed by Robert Wise.
As in the novel and many other classic ghost stories, a careful balance is maintained, making us unsure at any point whether the dark forces at work in Hill House are really troublesome spirits or the forces within a disturbed mind.
The most likely disturbed mind is that of Eleanor Lance (Vance in the novel), a sensitive with psychic ability who’s a victim of a traumatic past. She’s joined by Professor Markway (Richard Johnson), Theodora, another psychic (Claire Bloom), and a relative of the house’s owners, Luke (Russ Tamblyn).
THE HAUNTING is another heir to the Val Lewton school of suggested rather than seen horror. In fact, director Robert Wise cut his teeth directing such Lewton-produced chillers as THE BODY SNATCHER and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.
An example of the kind of understated horror offered up by THE HAUNTING occurs in a scene in which Eleanor and Theodora, sharing a room, endure a seige of banging and moaning sounds. In the dark, Eleanor feels a comforting hand holding hers, but when the lights come on, she realizes Theodora is on the other side of the room.
“Whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor cries.
Wise masterfully orchestrates the chills, and the black and white cinematography is crisp and gorgeous.
THE HAUNTING lacks the blood and violence horror fans are accustomed to today. Nonetheless, it’s a first class supernatural thriller that delivered real scares to audiences of the time. Not to mention it’s the only film version to do justice to its magnificent source novel.