5 out of 5 stars

In 1962, Robert Wise was almost halfway into a six-decade career that had already earned him 16 Oscar nominations, the first for Best Editing on Citizen Kane (1941), and most of the others for West Side Story (1961)—which went on to win 11 statuettes! So it’s a surprise to learn he had problems securing a workable budget for an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which would be a much smaller film.

Wise had been captivated by Jackson’s book (which he read during post-production on West Side Story), and had worked up a treatment with writing partner Neslon Gidding, who shared his enthusiasm. However, the studios he showed it to didn’t share this passion, and were baffled as to why a director, fresh from such a massive Oscar-winning smash hit, would want to get involved with what they perceived as a corny B movie. They offered him the level of budget most B movies were being made for at the time, which fell short of what Wise had in mind…

When Wise went over to England for the Royal Command Performance of West Side Story, he took the script along to show executives at MGM in London. They liked it, but their offer wasn’t significantly larger than what any of the US studios had offered. The difference being that it included use of their Borehamwood studios, a cast already under contract, and in the UK there was no shortage of spooky old mansions to choose for locations.

Gidding then spent 6 months writing their treatment into a screenplay. After working together on two notable productions, I Want to Live (1958) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), he’d built a relationship of trust with Wise, where they would work on a treatment together and then Gidding would be left to write the script. After The Haunting, Gidding would go on to write two more great screenplays for Wise, The Andromeda Strain (1971) and The Hindenburg (1975), proving himself the master of adapting literature for the screen.

In the screenplay, Gidding shifted narrative emphasis away from the supernatural to the psychological, portraying the ghostly happenings as reflections of the central character’s inner paranoia, depression, and repression. He wasn’t sure about this interpretation, so he and Wise went to see author Shirley Jackson… who explained, in no uncertain terms, that her novel was most definitely a ghost story. However, she also approved of their re-interpretation and suggested the shortened title. Taking this on board, Gidding introduced a clever ambiguity, leaving a lot for the audience to debate, and the psychological dimension contributed to the film’s enduring appeal.

Gidding hints that the house itself is doing the haunting, implying that the architectural environment is responsible for reflecting back the fears of those within, teasing out their vulnerabilities, feeding upon them, and making them manifest. The house becomes a monster, a maleficent presence that resents its human tenants. If the house can be read as a metaphor for the body, as is often the case in Gothic mansions and castles, then the occupants become its consciousness, the archetypes inhabiting its ego and id. Then the house inevitably suffers from a mental schism, a multiple personality disorder. The characters become those internal voices of nagging doubt and paranoia for the house… and it eventually suffers a mental breakdown.

Despite filming in England, the setting remained as New England. Ettington Park in Stratford-upon-Avon was the spooky mansion that Robert Wise chose for Hill House’s exteriors, reputedly selected from a list he sourced from the British Psychical Research Society of buildings considered to be genuinely haunted. This is the first ‘character’ to appear in the film, emerging out of darkness and looking very eerie indeed, due to the inventive use of infra-red film stock.

It’s been argued that the house is the true star of the film, and I have to admit it turns in a memorable “performance”. This, though, has more to do with marvellous production design by Elliot Scott and the huge labyrinthine sets built at Borehamwood. Corridors were made to converge or open out, creating a subtly expressionistic feel and rooms were constructed slightly askew, sometimes with walls that angled inward. Scott went on to design Labyrinth (1986) and the first two Indiana Jones sequels.

By the 1960s, Robert Wise may have been used to big Hollywood budgets, but he had started out directing films as a protégé of legendary B movie producer Val Lewton at RKO, who gave him his first directorial break with The Curse of the Cat People (1944), the sequel to Cat People (1942) which had been directed by the great Jacques Tourneur.

Val Lewton had pioneered the very concept of the psychological horror film, more concerned with building brooding suspense than delivering easy shocks. He used whispers and shadows to create a fear of the unknown, letting the audience’s imagination and their own fears do the heavy lifting. He kept his budgets low by bringing a noir aesthetic to horror. If a set was too expensive, just leave most of it in shadow… if the cost of special effects was prohibitive, replace them with sound and suggestion.

What Wise learned from his early career with Lewton is all over The Haunting. He even returned to using black-and-white photography, and the luscious grey tones and textures are celebrated in this new Blu-ray release from Warner Bros. He adhered to Val Lewton’s philosophy of letting the audience’s imagination do the work, and The Haunting is regularly included in Top 10 lists of the scariest films ever made. But the special effects are limited to only a few ingenious mechanical effects, as the terror is mostly the result of brilliant sound-design, clever use of shadows, and inventive camerawork.

Wise chose to shoot the film in Panavision’s wide format and every shot makes full use of it, with beautiful compositions and plenty of visual interest across every inch of the screen. The otherworldly atmosphere and ominous tracking shots, enhanced by special lenses, work in tandem with the subtly distorted sets.

Wise had some problems sourcing the wide-angle lenses he needed, mainly because they didn’t exist at that time. He wanted the interior to look deep, dark, and foreboding, seeming to move as if we were within a living thing. The available lenses just weren’t cutting it for him. He badgered Bob Gottschalk, president of Panavision, until he let slip that wider-lenses were in development at their optics labs. Gottschalk explained that they were early prototypes and the lenses caused unacceptable distortions. This was exactly what Wise wanted! After signing a disclaimer to waive any legal repercussions, he became the first director to use such wide angles, imbuing Hill House with its unique and disquieting visual personality.

The unique look of the film goes a long way to creating the brooding atmosphere, but the sound design was the real breakthrough. The slightest creak of floorboard or sigh of draught makes audiences hold their breath to better listen, and then cacophonous groans and thuds really get the heart racing.

Sound design and audio effects were in the hands of Desmond Briscoe, who’d developed his skills with the BBC Radiophonic workshop on Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), the original TV series. He went onto work on a fantastic watch-list of classics including Children of the Damned (1964), The Ipcress File (1965), The Stone Tape (1972), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

In one of The Haunting’s most memorable scary scenes, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom) are terrorised by a malevolent presence that stomps and bangs around the house, building to a deafening crescendo just outside the door. In the calm that follows, we hear only their breathing. From then on, they share a room  for ‘mutual reassurance’.

On another occasion, Eleanor is awoken by whispers, giggles, incoherent mumblings, and indecent noises. She urges Theodora to stay quiet, believing that the presence would be angered to know they are in the same room, but asks for her not to hold her hand so tightly. When all is quiet again, Eleanor realises that Theodora was sleeping throughout the ordeal, across the room in her own bed. So, who had been holding her hand? We don’t get to see the ghost, but we certainly feel its chilling presence.

Of course, our emotional involvement hinges on the performances of the actors. It seems that the personal circumstances and attitudes of the actors already reflected the characters they were to play. Harris admits that she was suffering from a bout of depression during filming, and this inadvertently helped her play the central role of the sensitive Eleanor, who feels isolated and shunned by her colleagues, and so becomes victim to the seductively malign atmosphere of the house. Her performance is both fragile and disturbingly unhinged in turns. The voice-over she provides, to share her character’s paranoia, might have looked corny on paper to those American studio executives, but Harris delivers it so perfectly that it draws the sympathies of the audience. We feel for her, even as she seems to succumb to madness and becomes the willing victim.

In contrast, Claire Bloom, brings gravitas to the screen. She was more used to playing strong literary roles like Shakespeare’s Lady Anne in Richard III (1955), Katya in The Brothers Karamazov (1958), Anna Karenina (1961) and Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1962). That’s not to say that her character, Theodora doesn’t have her own hang-ups, and her Sapphic attraction to Eleanor provides mainstream cinema with one of its earliest clearly lesbian subtexts.

Richard Johnson plays psychic investigator Dr. Markway, the instigator of the project who becomes complicit in the fate of his team when he allows Eleanor to become affected by the presence. Even when he may have been able to divert a tragic chain of events, he doesn’t. Instead of aborting his investigation when it all starts to get threatening, his obsession with the experiment drives him on at all costs. Apparently, Johnson was also starring in a stage production of The Devils in parallel with shooting for The Haunting, meaning he was spending his days on set and evenings on stage, pulling 16-hours a day. The gung-ho bravado displayed by Markway as his fights with his conscience and lack of sleep must have been pretty close to the actor’s actual moods.

Likewise, Russ Tamblyn’s circumstances helped realise his portrayal of Luke Sanderson. Tamblyn was another actor who first read the script and dismissed it as just another corny ghost story. He turned down the part, but was forced to reluctantly reconsider due to contractual pressure from the studio. Only when he was days into shooting did he realise the film’s worth and began to change his attitude. He recounts a brush with the supernatural in a nearby graveyard as his turning point, when he realised that he’d become emotionally invested in the part. The character of Sanderson is a happy-go-lucky sceptic who pokes fun at the very idea of hauntings, only to be convinced otherwise by the end of the story.

The seeming serendipity of the casting might have gone some way to explaining the effectiveness of the acting, but the cast are unanimous in placing credit where credit’s due and all speak highly of the calm and thoughtful direction they were given by Robert Wise.

Robert Wise is perhaps the most underrated of the truly great directors. He was one of the last to come up through the Hollywood studio system, starting out as a teenager doing odd-jobs at RKO studios and eventually becoming an acclaimed director and President of the Directors Guild of America. His influence upon the film industry is huge and has left a resounding legacy…

Allow me to get a bit ‘James Burke’ here and, by way of example, pick out just one thread of connections: a young Serio Leone, very early in his career, was second unit director for Robert Wise on Helen of Troy (1954) for the Italian location work. Leone later gave Dario Argento his first big break when he invited him to collaborate with Bernardo Bertolucci on the treatment for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Dario Argento in turn recognised the potential of fledgling cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro and pushed his obvious talents in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Storaro became a favourite of Francis Ford Coppola, winning an Oscar for his cinematography on Apocalypse Now (1979).

It is the auteur directors like Leone, Argento, and Coppola that seem to get most of the attention from film fans, critics, and academics alike. It may be easier to discuss a director in terms of their recurring themes and styles, but, in Robert Wise, we have a solid old-school director who made expertly crafted films that perfectly suited their content. He always remained true to material and could turn out big production musicals, claustrophobic war dramas, intelligent science fiction, melodrama, biopic, and of course, Gothic horror.

Apart from the obvious mastery of the craft, it’s hard to believe that some of his films are by the same director: Blood on the Moon (1948) was a gritty western starring Robert Mitchum, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was an intelligent sci-fi classic with political repercussions that won a special Golden Globe for Best Film Promoting International Understanding. Executive Suite (1955) an Oscar-winning corporate drama, was followed by Helen of Troy, the ground-breaking, internationally produced historical epic. I Want to Live! (1958) was his acclaimed biopic of Barbara Graham, the criminal executed in the gas chamber just three years prior, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) a prescient noir crime drama examining racial tensions, released just ahead of the race riots and unrest that swept across 1960s America, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr. The racial conflict theme was also central to West Side Story, this time given the song-and-dance treatment.

Then we get The Haunting squeezed in before production started for The Sound of Music (1965), which he only agreed to on condition that the studio assured him funding for The Sand Pebbles (1966), the Steve McQueen film set early in the Chinese Civil War of the 1920s. He would return to sci-fi with another classic, The Andromeda Strain, and tackle the supernatural once more with Audrey Rose (1977). Towards the finale of this illustrious career, he also directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)…. and that list, already containing a bunch of my favourite films, is just about a quarter of his varied output as director!

The new Blu-ray release of The Haunting has a commentary, seemingly stitched together from archive interviews, in which Wise talks us thorough many key scenes and explains how the simple, yet ingenious camerawork was done. He tells us that it remains a personal favourite from his filmography and that he feels it to be his most successfully realised as a director. He’s joined by Nelson Gidding, Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn, who all share much insight and little nuggets about the production and describe their feelings during the shoot, making this a really worthwhile commentary.

The Haunting stands alongside Night of the Demon (1957) and The Innocents (1961) as a defining classic in the cinema of the supernatural. It has never been surpassed and its ‘presence’ is palpable in most intelligent psychological horror films to this day. If special effects had been used more extensively, then it surely would have dated, but keeping the focus on mood and the psychological aspects of the narrative has ensured it remains as effective as ever.

It’s the best Halloween film I could recommend.

Cast & Crew

director: Robert Wise.
writer: Nelson Gidding (based on ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson).
starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson & Russ Tamblyn.

Buy The Haunting at HMV, part of the Warner Bros. Premium Collection.