I love October – the cool, refreshing air and the colorful autumn leaves put us in the mood for a few ghost stories and a visit to a haunted house. This week our scary movie selection is rather restrained, with mostly psychological tension, and little to no violence and gore. We promise to ramp up the terror quotient as the month proceeds with nightmarish results.
The Haunting 1963 drama horror
Still the template for haunted house movies, accept no substitutes for the 1963 original and avoid the clunky 1999 remake. The bulk of the movie takes place at the Hill House, an old and remote mansion with a grisly past. Dr. Markway, who has spent his career studying the supernatural, believes that he can prove whether or not the house is truly haunted. Off we go to Hill House to find an iron gated, huge, jumbled example of dark and dreary Gothic architecture. The well detailed interior can be described as cluttered Victorian, suggesting the owners collected everything and never threw anything out.
The four main stars of the movie take up residence in the spook house; Eleanora aka Nell (played by Julie Harris), Theodora aka Theo (played by Claire Bloom), Dr. Markway (played by Richard Johnson), and Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn). The acting is first rate, with Dr. Markway and Luke correctly underplaying their roles to allow the two ladies to take center stage. Both Nell and Theo are excellent. Nell is nervous, introverted and caught up in the atmosphere of the house, it's the pivotal role of the movie and Harris instills a heart aching fragility into her character. She is every inch a virgin-wallflower with a touch of madness. For the first half of the movie, Nell is a sympathetic character, but as the film progresses she reveals herself as quite obsessive and delusional. The look in Nell’s eyes says it all; she is a vulnerable and needy young lady, and I can’t picture anyone else but Julie Harris playing Nell.
Bloom, as Theodora, on the other hand has mystical qualities, a sexiness and a devilishly playful disposition, qualities enhanced by her bitch charisma. She is also obviously gay. The sexual tension is high anytime Theo is around, and she seems especially attracted to Nell while being indifferent to the two men staying at the Hill House. Theo seems capable of reading Nell’s thoughts and some of the bedroom scenes hint strongly at Theo’s lesbian nature. Keep in mind the time period and the Hay’s Code for movie censorship and you have a movie walking on egg shells quite effectively.
I think what makes the film work so powerfully at its core is the way we come to know all the main characters, and feel like they're real people. We don't like all of them all the time, but they all have unexpected virtues and flaws. The compelling power of the film resides in the intense emotions felt by these characters, and the way they relate to one another. When the Hill House starts to come to life, the four of them band together and soldier on. It becomes quite clear that the ghosts of Hill House prefer Nell, but why?
The sudden arrival of Markway’s wife, Grace (played by Lois Maxwell), really gets the pot boiling at the old Hill House. Everyone knows (or should know) Lois Maxwell as the one and only "Miss Moneypenny", but there's much more to her acting career than just Bond flicks. Grace Markway, tall and shapely, really knows how to make an entrance at Hill House. She is the Queen Bee and instantly takes command, and starts giving orders. Grace has zero time for discussing the supernatural and considers the subject to be utter nonsense. She is concerned that Dr. Markway’s reputation will suffer should the press discover he is out “chasing ghosts”. Any negative press on her husband, of course, would reflect badly on herself.
Darkness falls on the angry House, and the ghost rampage begins. I will not the spoil the ending. This is low-key, sophisticated psychological horror film with a powerhouse of underrated (and unknown by me) UK actors. This is not the type film to trigger nightmares, so hardcore horror fans will probably be left wanting. I can do without nightmares, so I consider the film a must see classic.
Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2021. All rights reserved.