Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg count the slow-burn 1963 horror as one of the greatest of all time but it wasn’t always seen as a classic
By Guy Lodge
There’s a strange kind of pride that many people take in not being frightened by certain celebrated horror films. “Oh, it’s not scary at all,” they’ll say loftily about The Shining or The Exorcist or The Babadook, as if they’ve somehow outsmarted the film and the other, weaker viewers it worked on, all still cowering too much to give the holdout’s smug bravery the shrug it merits. Scariness, in addition to being wholly subjective, is not exactly a value judgement. There are any number of shoddy identikit slashers out there that can make an otherwise discerning viewer jump in all the right places; there are likewise many smart, artful horror films that may not elicit much more than a stray shiver, but stick with you in other ways. Which of those you value more is your call.
Classic horror films are frequently subjected to this kind of dismissal by modern audiences – the contemporary limitations on their violence or explicitness or special effects too often taken for a timidity that outweighs whatever psychological weaponry they may yield. But The Haunting, released 60 years ago this week, has been weathering such taunts since it was brand-new. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding’s leisurely, elegant adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 literary ghost story wasn’t much of a hit: reviews were respectable but cinemagoers were underwhelmed by its slow-burning storytelling and curtailed shocks.
Writing about the film a year after its release, in an essay titled Are Movies Going to Pieces?, the critic Pauline Kael – semi-admiring of the film’s accomplishments, while conceding that it wasn’t “a great movie” – despaired at the reaction of the audience around her: “[They] were restless and talkative, the couple sitting near me arguing – the man threatening to leave, the woman assuring him that something would happen. In their terms, they were cheated: nothing happened. And, of course, they missed what was happening all along.”
To this day, the divide remains the same. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have both declared it among the scariest films ever made; head on over to the horror film website Where’s the Jump, however, and The Haunting gets a lowly one-star “jump scare rating”. That’s not necessarily damning – think of the the site as a consumer service for the especially faint of heart – but it does indicate opposing ideas of where the horror in horror cinema lies. The Haunting is at heart an old-fashioned haunted-house movie, and boasts its share of that subgenre’s requisite spooky door slams and unexplained nocturnal rumblings.
They’re executed with taste and restraint, which may equal tempered scares for many. Wise, a smooth A-list studio director making a return to modestly budgeted monochrome entertainment between the Oscar-winning musical exhortations of West Side Story and The Sound of Music, wasn’t a B-movie exploitation merchant in the mould of William Castle or Roger Corman. Nor did The Haunting quite aspire to the spare, artsy chills of Jack Clayton’s essential Henry James adaptation The Innocents.
Wise and Gidding didn’t set out to put viewers through the wringer. Gidding was less interested in the supernatural component of Jackson’s novel than he was in the psychological tumult experienced by its notional heroine Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris): a socially isolated, mentally frail young woman enlisted by anthropologist turned ghost hunter Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) to take part in his research trip to the allegedly haunted Hill House, in a remote, woodsy part of Massachusetts. Her mental breakdown is signalled before she even turns up at the wretched estate, via her fevered, loquacious internal voiceover; upon arrival, it is clear that the house’s creeping shadows and labyrinthine layout will agitate her whether it houses malevolent spirits or not. A tetchy, twitchy Harris plays her superbly as a panic attack waiting to happen; the film’s terror isn’t in its phantom sounds or its threatening words scrawled on the walls or even Rosalie Crutchley’s robotically cursed housekeeper, but in watching Eleanor progressively lose her mind, endangering herself in the process.
As horror arcs go, it’s a gradual one – a long-jump scare if you will, played out in painstaking slow motion. Aware that they’re demanding some patience of their audience, Wise and Gidding distract them with the lurid, superficial trappings of the genre: Johnson’s imperious narration, close to camp in its ripe air of hogwash expertise, assures as that “an evil old house is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored”, while Davis Boulton’s rich charcoal cinematography and Elliott Scott’s lavish American Gothic set design corroborate that promise. Yet the film’s elaborate creepy atmospherics all amount to a kind of red herring, as do Markway’s po-faced jabberings about the Hill House’s glum history of violence: there may well be ghosts in its walls, but are they the ones driving Eleanor round the bend?
Strip back its handsome Hollywood treatment, and The Haunting looks rather modern, even subversive, for 1963. A chamber piece about collapsing mental health with a notably unhappy ending – qualified only by the debatable contention that a character’s suicide “is what she wanted” – its starkness is only barely disguised by the sumptuousness of the chambers in question. The unconcealed lesbianism of another Hill House guest, glamorous psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom), may seem an incidental detail, but it ties into The Haunting’s then counterintuitive genre interest in unusual human wiring as opposed to spiritual intervention. Queer horror buffs today embrace Wise’s film as a defiant early example of positive, matter-of-fact LGBTQ+ characterisation in mainstream cinema; it’s similarly empathetic and non-judgmental when it comes to Eleanor’s outsider status. None of this would have earned the film many extra points at the box office.
Kael’s essay was one of many that have written in the last six decades projecting the death of cinema as an art form: popular resistance to the subtleties of The Haunting, she wrote, would work in tandem with cinephiles’ growing attraction to arthouse obliqueness to cue a widespread change in storytelling approach entirely: “It is not just general audiences out for an evening’s entertainment who seem to have lost the narrative sense, or become indifferent to narrative.” Her doom-saying was perhaps excessive, but not entirely wrong. Kael lived to see the release of Jan de Bont’s dire, juiced-up remake of The Haunting in 1999; I don’t know if she saw the film itself, but she would have felt vindicated if she had. Adding all the fast, cheap scares and empty, audience-diverting incident into Jackson’s story that the 1963 film kept out – and, not for nothing, significantly de-queering the character of Theodora – it was panned by critics and embraced at the box office. Nobody talks about it today, even to brag about how unscary it is; Wise’s film frustrates, aggravates, even haunts us still.