Though it deserves its reputation as one of the most purely terrifying of all celluloid ghost stories, Robert Wise's 1963 film version of Shirley
Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting Of Hill House is actually a character study before it is a horror movie.
A lengthy, narrated prologue — a little like the preface to Hammer Films' version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles — establishes the evil history of a New England mansion built by mad patriarch Hugh Grain. Hill House has been the site of many tragedies over 80 years, but Jackson believes, and Wise suggests, the place isn't really haunted until Eleanor Vance (Harris) moves in. Along with Theodora (Bloom), a slinky psychic, and Luke (Tamblyn, held over from Wise's West Side Story), who expects to inherit Hill House one day, Eleanor has been recruited by the suave-but-cranky parapsychologist Dr. Markway (Johnson) for a study project in the supernatural. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1981), Eleanor is at once terrorised and seduced by the house and, at the end, becomes its resident ghost. She is included in Markway's experimental party because of a Carrie-like adolescent burst of telekinesis, which bombarded her childhood home with pebbles — an event which she still hotly denies.
Everyone of the manifestations that torment the intruders throughout the film are, in fact, just side-effects of Eleanor's sustained psychic assault on herself. This is underlined by the opening and closing statement that "Whatever walked there, walked alone", which affirms that poor Nell, dead on the grounds, is the only ghost that has ever haunted Hill House. Wise, though known in the 60s for big-budget musicals (West Side Story, The Sound Of Music) and remembered for distinguished science fiction films — (The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) — began his directorial career under the aegis of Val Lewton's RKO horror unit in the 1940s, taking over the troubled production of Curse Of The Cat People (1944) in mid-shoot and helming the horrific Boris Karloff vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945).
The Haunting, meanwhile, is in the Lewton tradition: a scary movie that makes a virtue of keeping any ghosts off-screen. The most unsettling moment is almost a radio-play gimmick, as Eleanor holds hands with Theo in the dark for comfort — the lights go on, and she realises Theo was on the other side of the room all the time ("Whose hand was I holding ?"). As with Lewton's best films, it's not true that The Haunting uses no special effects.
The door which seems to breathe, suggesting a vast monstrosity beyond, is justifiably famous, but also nerve-racking is the rickety spiral staircase that seems to go up forever and threatens to collapse every time it is used. Wise even gets a scare from shifting the light-source to cast face-shaped shadows on the wallpaper. The Haunting is yet another film ill-served by pan and scan television prints: Wise brilliantly uses black and white widescreen to strand his characters in odd-shaped rooms or corridors, making the watcher's eye skitter frantically over the letterbox screen to catch every ingeniously rendered detail.
Julie Harris, who specialised in playing exactly the type of neurotic spinster Jackson often wrote about, is especially good at revealing the stubborn strengths that lie within the timid Eleanor and make her, in the end, a danger both to other people and herself. She plays extremely well with the secondary characters, all of whom are slightly caricatured, representing Eleanor's fantasy of real people rather than the people themselves. Johnson's Markway (Montague in the book) is a well-spoken boffin, a little smug and rather too cavalier about this expedition into the dark. Bloom's Theo, in a black bodystocking and amulet, makes for a glamorous wish-fulfilment figure of independent womanhood, her sexual ambiguity (Eleanor calls her "unnatural" — which is as near to being a lesbian as a movie character could get in 1963) frees her from the heartbreaking crush Eleanor develops on the (married) doctor. And Tamblyn's Luke is a happy-go-lucky rich kid, quick with the wisecracks and unsaddled with the family guilts that have tied Eleanor to her recently-dead mother and mean-spirited little sister.
The house itself, along with its hatchet-faced custodians (played by Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall), is equally "unnatural", a giant nightmare playground that fulfils the sheltered Eleanor's desire for adventure and romance, even if it ultimately means she has to die to take up permanent residence in its echoing, gothic halls. Jackson and Wise set out to create the ultimate ghost story in their respective media, but The Haunting Of Hill House and The Haunting proved so successful that the story's influence has been felt down the years in numerous subsequent books and films.
Richard Matheson's Hell House — filmed as The Legend Of Hell House (1973) — is a conscious variation on the scientists-investigate-a-big-old-haunted-house theme, while the Stephen King and legendary Stanley Kubrick versions of The Shining (1981) also venture into Jackson's gothic "badplace". As for Hill House's darkest, most terrible secret — well, we had better not talk about the 1999 Jan De Bont remake.