The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I are about to finish up another review season before taking a short break from the parallel post series of ours. In keeping with our budding tradition with the dark seasonal fare of All Hallows Eve, we examine two timely and remarkable works. A book/film combo of frightening fiction by the influential American author, Shirley Jackson. Known for her literary talent, The Haunting of Hill House gathered worthy acclaim when first released.
In fact, this novel would go on to affect such notable writers as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Matheson. King would even highlight this, her most significant early work, in his non-fiction book on American culture and horror fiction, Danse Macabre, in 1981. Rachel will examine the 1959 novel, more a supernatural thriller rather than outright horror, that defined the genre and offered intriguing undertones. I’ll examine its well-regarded 1963 film adaptation, retitled as The Haunting, by a famed filmmaker. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Dr. John Markway has found the thing that has consumed his research. A truly haunted house. “It was an evil house from the beginning — a house that was born bad.”, as he would describe it. Perfect for his paranormal investigation into spectral phenomena, one that must be experienced firsthand. Only after leasing it from the owner on the condition Luke, her heir, go with him. The young skeptic will join the good doctor, and his two assistants, in this scientific ghost hunt. Theodora, the psychic, and the meek but sensitive Eleanor. The maze-like mansion will welcome them as only the infamous Hill House can. Manifesting itself to the new guests in horrific and ultimately deadly ways.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
I still recall the first time I encountered this film. Around the late-60s, on one of those late-night TV programs that played movies as the last of Saturday nestled into Sunday morning. I that teen who loved staying up late on the weekends with whatever movie the programmers had in store for me. Until hormones and girls became all the more important, that is. And what The Haunting brought to that late-night viewing has spooked me to this day.
It would be hard to imagine telling this story on film without a true craftsman at the helm. One who knew how to build into each frame of celluloid the same sense of creep that Shirley Jackson delivered on the page. Difficult to visualize anyone else other than the renowned director, producer, and film editor, Robert Wise. Oh, well, I guess I can, but we all know it results in a train wreck (yeah, I’m looking at you, Jan De Bont).
No, you need someone with the calm, measured restraint to recognize what’s not shown, that which the audience (or reader) forms in their own imagination, was entirely more frightening than putting whatever under a glaring light. Part of the spell Jackson weaved so wonderfully could be translated to the screen, if you trusted her judgment. And if The Haunting was anything, it was a woman’s distinct look at what scares us. What lurks unseen.
“Only one way to argue with a woman, doc. Don’t.” ~ Luke’s advice to Dr. Markway
Robert Wise’s grand treatment of the haunted house genre in general, and the film adaptation of the Shirley Jackson’s novel in particular, with the tremendous assistance by screenwriter Nelson Gidding, remains one of the profoundly unnerving black & white gems of the era. That it materialized onto the screens of movie theaters in the socially conscious 60s shouldn’t surprise.
Shirley Jackson’s novel itself was an evocative and figurative look at how women were locked into and strapped down in a male-dominated world.
That it was given a frank, honest interpretation by the screenwriter, and a haunting look in Wise’s skilled hands, was a testament. A film that slowly, but surely, creeped the audience the Hell out by the time the final credits arrived. Atmospheric and psychologically oft-putting, Julie Harris and Claire Bloom (as the tormented Eleanor and Theodora) alone against the dark were simply memorable. The women without doubt anchored the tale.
Markway: “Welcome to Hill House, I’m Dr. Markway.”
Eleanor: “Thank goodness, thank goodness. I thought you might be a ghost.”
Markway: “How do you know I’m not?”
Theodora: “Don’t be ghoulish.”
Markway: “Now, now. You mustn’t confuse ghoulish and ghostly. The word ghoulish is used to describe a feeling of horror. Often accompanied by intense cold. It has nothing to do with ghosts. Ghosts are a visible thing.”
The above a key description for what lay ahead for these two. They the sensitives in the story. Their expressive faces, complex relationship, and cutting dialogue vicariously led the audience through the tale. The men, the steady Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway and the unexpected, though surprisingly well cast Russ Tamblyn as the cocksure inheritor of the cursed manor, merely the powerless observers, as the viewer will learn.
Even though, all were the victims of Hill House by the end.
The atmosphere only strengthened by the use black & white cinematography, another ‘Wise’ decision I must say. The blackness that dominates scenes and closes in on Eleanor could only be found within that film type. Hard to capture via the color photography of the day. The blacks and shadows framed especially well by DP Davis Boulton. That being so important to the unseen character in the piece.
The real antagonist, Hill House itself — the repressive spiteful haunting of the tale — the dark reproach witnessed and experienced by the women especially. The metaphorical gender suppression of female by male, in this case by the man who built the house, the evident undercurrent throughout the film.
The technical and art aspects, too, added to the mood within The Haunting. The various kinds of B&W film stock produced visible contrasts. So good that you could spot the nap differences between Dr. Markwell’s tweed herringbone or corduroy blazers against the wool fibers in that damn sweater vest of his. As well, it’s worth noting the use of mirrors and reflection sprinkled throughout the film. Literally the house’s perspective of those who dared enter its dominion.
Just about every fabric used by the art directors on drapes to wallpaper to cushions carried a visual texture that only enhanced the dark, insane character of Hill House. Shadows being the key influence, carrying the threat and demeanor of “…whatever walked there”, which by the way, “…walked alone.” The sounds in the film, along with its equally impressive editing and the director’s use of shooting low angles, lent to the genuine unnerving affect of it all.
The exterior of the house was shot with infrared film to darken the sky, lighten the clouds and accentuate the contrast between everything else and the eerie dwelling at the center of the dark tale. A striking manor, for sure. One from Stratford-upon-Avon in the U.K. standing in for New England as it turned out.
Director Wise was a model of control with the material. Throwing in subtext or nuance with the best of them. As well, he gave everyone a splendid scene to bring their character to bear on Jackson’s story. Theodora at first standing out, putting Eleanor down with just the right measure of feline cruelty. The type of sniping men notice, or fail to, but choose to disregard out of their own discomfort, was ever-present as the story unfolded.
“Doc, let you have the house cheap.” ~ Luke again speaking to Markway
Still, this was really Julie Harris finest hour with her portrayal of the repressed, fragile as glass Eleanor. Her “Journeys end in lovers’ meeting” echoed throughout, as was her unforgettable narration. Although the manor worked each of its guests weaknesses, she was the tormented figure even before her arrival to Hill House. Theo foreshadowing her fate in the endeavor via her ESP, “You see, you haven’t a ghost of a chance.”
In the subsequent decades, as some in the genre grew to depend on shock or grisly effects to gain their scares, this film achieved its supremely creepy fright without any need of it. Indeed, besides Wise’s keen work, it’s the writing that did it.
Truly, The Haunting was a very faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s masterfully shadowy, subtle novel. Gedding’s adept trimming, losing two late characters in the novel via dialogue, in point of fact helped focus the tale:
“Originally there were six committed to the experiment. One by one the others dropped out. I suppose they were frightened by the various unsavory stories. You’re the only ones left.”
As well, the film’s addition of Markway’s wife (Miss Moneypenny’s Lois Maxwell) to the foursome assisted in sweeping Eleanor’s weak underpinning, her yearning for love, out from under her. The character’s breakage was then assured in another clever bit of writing. Bringing down the character byway of those she trusted most as surely as the darkness.
Eleanor: “Oh, please, Luke, let me stay. I’ll help Mrs. Dudley. All it will cost will just be my keep.”
Luke: “Sorry, honey, but you’re not the kind I keep.”
Finally catching up to the novel years later with this duo post proved to be an eye-opener for me. Primarily for how grand this Robert Wise’s film showcased Shirley Jackson’s deft, economical prose. I can’t fault either for they were flawless in their mediums. Working the words on the page and visualizing them onto the screen. The cast fitting perfectly as exquisite pieces in a puzzle. One that delivered a wonderful adaptation for one of the important literary works of the time.
“It ought to be burned down… and the ground sowed with salt.”
Lastly, in perhaps the most clever bit of screenwriting, besides relocating the above quote from early in the novel to late in the film, was repurposing Shirley Jackson’s brilliant first paragraph. The same one Stephen King lauded. Bringing about the film’s discerning epitaph. Eleanor’s final ghostly voiceover, evoking Markway’s own prologue that opened the film. One that took the house’s true measure, delivered verily by the haunted figure as she expanded Shirley’s famous text with a new pronoun:
“Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here… walk alone.”
Parallel Post Series
- Black Hawk Down
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
- The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days
- The Constant Gardener
- The Hot Rock
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts