My esteemed colleague and fancy-pants film auteur, Tom Chick, likes to make fun of me for liking grandpa movies. I admit I like a lot of black and white movies, especially horror. Well, let me rephrase that. I like black and white horror movies that don’t involve actually seeing the monster. We all know how crappy the rubber suit monsters looked.
For me, picking a horror movie wasn’t an easy task. I wanted to talk about Devil’s Backbone and the original The Thing (as well as John Carpenter’s), but when it comes to scary movies, The Haunting always wins out. Set in a giant, haunted mansion, the movie is really great at establishing a cold and unwelcoming tone. The main characters have been invited to the house by Dr. John Markway, a college professor and paranormal investigator, to prove the existence of ghosts.
After the jump, I do believe in spooks!
Other than the doctor, there’s the young heir to the house, Luke as well as Theo and Nell. Theo, who is played by Claire Bloom (Queen Mary from the King’s Speech), is chosen for her powers of ESP. Nell, the real star of the film, is a home-body that had an extreme experience with a poltergeist. Nell is played by Julie Harris of East of Eden fame.
As the movie progresses, the house becomes more and more hostile. Nell and Theo spend the night together in one of the rooms while the doctor and Luke wait up and stand watch. While the house is creepy during the day, it’s downright terrifying at night. The house begins to move and come alive as the women cling to each other in terror. It sounds as if boulders are being thrown at the roof and there’s a tangible feeling of evil in the room.
One thing that The Haunting came under fire for at the time was the notion that Theo was a lesbian that took an interest in Nell. Nell, being a homebody who takes care of her parents, is very naive. Theo begins flirting with Nell and Nell starts to become a bit attached, causing Theo to try and distance herself to disrupt an infatuation. In doing so Nell is hurt and confused, leading to the the real insanity in the house.
I won’t ruin any more of the film as it really needs to be seen to be appreciated. This is my favorite example of how you don’t have to show a monster to create fear. The threat of the unknown, to me, is scarier than any creature. With clever camera work and sound design, the monster can be your deepest fears. If you take that same monster and make it a guy in a rubber suit or some piece of CGI, it immediately has a face and the mind can wrap itself around the threat and accept it.
If you are a fan of Sam Raimi, specifically the Evil Dead series, you need to watch this movie. Raimi cribbed the camera style used for the big evil in Evil Dead 2 directly from The Haunting. The scene where all of the furniture and the deer head are laughing in Evil Dead 2 is very much an homage and, well, just an awesome scene.
Post Script: If you want to see a fun homage to The Haunting, the awful horror movie Waxwork II: Lost in Time features a trip to Hill House with Bruce Campbell playing Dr. Markway, though his character is named John Loftmore. Also there’s a really terrible rap song in the credits. Also also the bad guy is Karl from Die Hard, so angry blonde Germans are nuts.