Halloween movies month: The Haunting

>> Friday, October 31, 2008

It might just be the best haunted house story ever made, but then it was based on what just might be the best haunted house story ever written.

Ironically, this isn't the smartest thing Nell does the whole movie.Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting follows Shirley Jackson's horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House with surprising fidelity, losing only some of the more internal and surreal moments. (Hill House, published in 1959, doesn't feature any drug elements, but a chunk of the book's rush to its ending could probably be best described as "psychedelic," for want of a more-fitting word.) In particular, the movie borrows liberally from some of its source's more poetic passages, in particular lifting lines from the book's famous opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The Haunting remains one of the most-effectively scary movies ever made, even almost half a century later. It's all atmosphere--no blood, no gore, rather minimalist in its use of special effects (there are a few lighting tricks, and a wonderfully-used bulging door that almost ruptures into splinters before creaking back into its normal shape and plane). Indeed, perfectly, you never see one single ghost in the entire two hour (well, 112 minutes) run of the film. Oh, but you hear them, and it's brilliantly oppressive and disconcerting, especially when you watch this movie in the dark (and you have to watch this movie in the dark). Whatever walks in Hill House bangs on the walls and stomps down the corridors and rattles the doorknobs; it sounds just awful, and if you were one of the outmatched parapsychological investigators spending the week in Hill House, you'd be sleeping in your car every night and damn the cold New England weather. Better to freeze to death or die of carbon monoxide poisoning trying to run the heater all night than to meet whatever the hell it is that's making all that damned racket.

The woman on the right was so traumatized by her night in Hill House, she had to move to England to work as a secretary at an export firm.Nor is it merely the ghosts--if there are ghosts in Hill House--that's left to the imagination, and that's one of the reasons the 1963 The Haunting remains a classic while the 1999 remake remains a forgettable travesty. Are our heroes harassed by the supernatural, or is it mass psychosis? Is the house haunted by one ghost, or several? Who (or what) is more of a menace, the stiff-necked puritanical builder of Hill House, the late Hugh Crain, or his late, shut-in, spinster daughter, Abigail? Or is it just the damn house, and not anything ghostly at all, a house that was just born bad? (The latter conceit, it might be noted, was subsequently borrowed by Stephen King for Christine--perhaps consciously, since King has expressed his admiration for Jackson's novel).

This brings up as good an opportunity as any to rail against remakes of old films that aren't merely "pointless" but are actually sort of insulting to the source material and the viewing audience. I'm not really opposed to remakes generally: one of my favorite movies of all time is a remake of one of my other favorite movies of all time, after all. Indeed, that last comment almost rebuts what I was about to add regarding pointlessness: I was about to write something about how you're unlikely to remake a movie by the legendary Robert Wise better than he did the first time out, but people have made some fine movies ripping off Akira Kurosawa, one of the most brilliant directors in the history of ever.

But the 1999 remake of The Haunting is a rotten film that manages to get everything wrong, and I guess the reason it seems particularly rotten is that you might think a contemporary film could improve on the 1963 film in certain small ways. By which I mean the lesbianism. Might as well just say it. And no, I don't mean the 1999 version should have gone softcore.

It's a pajama party at the mansion!See, the novel and the 1959 adaptation are fraught with sexual tension that could be crammed into the "what's haunting Hill House?" list in a previous paragraph. We're not talking about the "will they or won't they" business that passes for sexual tension these days--you know, Rachel-and-Ross-on-Friends "sexual tension," we're talking about the psychologically damaging, repressed, Freud-would-have-a-field-day kind of sexual tension. The real deal, in other words. Nell Lance, the central character of the story, shows up at Hill House as a virtual runaway, an older woman who has sacrificed a healthy adulthood to taking care of an invalid mother and then sleeping on her hectoring sister's couch after mom's death; once in the company of her fellow investigators, Nell quickly becomes the pivot-point of a damaged and unhealthy triangle: Nell has irresolvable feelings for the group's organizer, Dr. Markway (who's married, but doesn't always act like it) and her fellow guest Theodora ("Theo") has obvious and just as irresolvable feelings for Nell. And this is sort of the psychic pulse for the story: there's a definite sense that it's Nell's stunted and repressed sexual growth that's either waking/powering Hill House or making it seem like something's going on.1

It wasn't completely impossible to have lesbians onscreen in 1963, but it was difficult. So the 1963 film spends quite a bit of time talking around the subject: it's really well-done, with Claire Bloom (Theo) wolfing down Julie Harris (Nell) with every other sidelong glance (when she's not shooting eye-daggers at Richard Johnson's Markway for being the obvious object of Nell's attention), and various allusions to the subtext that finally erupt into Nell accusing Theo of being "unnatural" (the thrust of which is pretty plainspoken in 1963-ese), but nobody can actually come out and state the obvious and the dialogue sometimes gets a little strained. (The significance of "unnatural" may be obvious, but "No, I won't sleep with you" would be a good bit more obvious.)

I swear to God, how many copies of The Necronomicon does somebody need to own?This is an area where you might think a contemporary remake could get right to the point instead of doing an uneasy little dance with the censors. I'm not saying a remake should bed Theo and Nell, because that would actually miss the point of "repressed sexual drives not helpful". But the 1963 version's reliance on code can be a bit frustrating when it's not pigeonholing the movie into its era. But, as far as I can recall from watching the 1999 version (and I have to admit I was having a hard time because I hated it, and was watching on cable, and sometimes flipped the channel, so maybe I missed the part where Theo comes in wearing a rainbow ribbon and says she "knows this bar" in Boston that Nell would just love) almost totally strips out the sexual subtexts of the original story. Nell still likes Markham because he's Liam Neeson, but Theo is mostly just kind of there, and Nell's issues appear to have more to do with child abuse or something than they do with the fact that Nell is basically a little girl in a woman's body.

In other words, a movie made in 1963 is more frank about sexuality (as opposed to sex) than one made after the '70s, even when it's a bit dated with some of its more Freudian semitones. How did that happen? I don't know.

But the 1999 version does add something the original doesn't have: CGI. And lots of it. Fireplaces that eatpeople and ludicrously animated statues and glowy things that beg to be shot down with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator. It's as if the creators of the '99 film watched the '63 film and said, "Wait, I thought this was a ghost story... why aren't there any fucking ghosts in it?" This is probably because in the 1980s ghosts went from being a part of the "unseen spirit world" to being neon-bright translucent jellyfish things. Aside from the fact that glowy ghosts stopped being scary or cool midway through Poltergeist II.2

This is one of the scariest things in the movie. No, seriously.The less said about the remake, the better, and so I've said too much. But the comparison does highlight one of the key things about the original, which is that it really is a psychological horror story as much as it's a haunted house story. What's in the characters' minds, and the viewer's perceptions, are what drives along the original and makes it creepy as all hell.

And that's a fair enough summary to leave you with as the last word: The Haunting (1963)--creepy as all hell.

1Nell, we learn early in the movie, was once at the center of a poltergeist manifestation for a period of time. Readers with a (hopefully) literary interest in the paranormal may recall that one "explanation" for poltergeist activity proffered by parapsychologists is that the mischievous spirits aren't ghosts at all, but the unconscious telekinetic tantrums of a pubescent teen, usually a girl. This isn't really laid out in the movie, actually, but what is laid out is sufficient for anyone familiar with the (koff) "science" to fill in the blanks--Nell was as uptight and repressed as teen as she is as a spinster, and that's why it rained rocks on her house for several days when she was a kid.

2Although I'm a skeptical materialist, and don't believe in ghosts, I have to sit back and think about how convenient it would be for parapsychologists if glowy ghosts were the real deal. Instead of stumbling around with night vision goggles and taking shaky video of a windowshade caught in a bad draft from a poorly-sealed window, they could just say, "Dude, this place is so haunted you can read by it!" I mean, really, can't you just imagine?


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