Retro Review: The Haunting (1963)

I’ve seen The Haunting three or four times in the past few years. For a long while I regarded it as the greatest horror film of all time. It’s certainly up there, but it doesn’t hold up to multiple viewings. But Dr. Markway’s tweed and corduroy jackets make it all worthwhile. Delicious.

The film, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, differs in a few key ways from the novel. Some of the names are inexplicably changed (Eleanor Vance becomes Eleanor Lance; Dr. Montague is now Dr. Markway); the possible lesbian subtext, though still present, is downplayed; and Markway’s wife is not a rabid spiritualist but a wet-blanket skeptic. But what’s really different–and really lacking–is a sense of perspective on Eleanor’s absolute looniness. She’s nuts, but in the novel we have a better understanding of why. In the novel her insanity is nuanced, with practical, sympathetic causes and moments of clarity that make it all the more powerful and tragic. In the film she’s just a bizarre, frumpy lunatic, not particularly sympathetic and not particularly believable.

Since the plot is essentially the same as the novel, I’ll refer you to my review of that work for details. What the film has going for it are some excellent performances by the four main cast members (and the aforementioned scrumptious tweediness), fantastic set design, and some cool practical effects (the wooden door bulging inward as an unseen force pushes on it from outside is still solid gold), but it suffers from the aforementioned inexplicable decisions and a sense of abruptness. This last is especially weird given that it’s actually quite a slow film. How can a movie be both slow and abrupt? I have no idea, but The Haunting manages it.

But also, it’s still brilliant. It makes me want to live in the ’60s, when everybody smoked and drank and, I dunno, like, spoke with bizarre half-British affected accents. Like a lot of film versions of great novels, I think it’s more of a companion piece to the book.



9 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Haunting (1963)

  1. It’s like you want me to come fight you. I feel like a lot of the issues you’re raising are a result of A) 60s filmmaking (which seems to me a lot less invested in psychological realism than both contemporary films and literature) and B) the transition from page to screen (which prevents a lot of the more immediate, intimate insight into Eleanor’s thoughts). It’s not as subtle and nuanced as the novel, but that would be really difficult to accomplish, because Shirley Jackson is the boss. (She’s particularly accomplished, I think, at making highly sympathetic portraits of totally out-of-touch-with-reality people, case in point the phenomenal We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) All of which is to say, psh, whatever, The Haunting is totally still the best, you’re a dummy.

  2. I’m curious what you think about the remake they did in the late 90’s that changed the origin story of the house almost completely. I’m kind of torn about it, but only because Lili Taylor was such a phenomenal choice to portray Eleanor. The rest of the characters actors though, and most of the plot, and especially the weird molesting bedpost scene, just no. But to somehow transplant Lili Taylor into the original film would fix the tiny character flaws imho.

    • I agree completely. Lily Taylor is awesome, and I think of her as Nell way more readily than Julie Harris. And I also agree with you about the remake as a whole. Just terrible. Except for Lily Taylor. Although I can kind of see Catherine Zeta Jones as Theo. Not that she’s a great actor, but she pulled off the attitude fairly well.

      Lily Taylor played a blind woman who could see through the eyes of a murderer in an episode of the X Files. It was wicked.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s