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.

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