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The Haunting (1962)

"Hill House had stood for 90 years, and might stand for 90 more… whatever walked there, walked alone."

It's a sad fact that these days, the turgid 90s re-make of this wonderful film has probably (somehow) managed to outshine the original. There may even be people out there - sane, normal people in many ways - who don't even know that the Liam Neeson / Catherine Zeta-Douglas-Jones-whatever-the-bloody-hell-she-calls-herself-these-days farrago is actually a remake of what is possibly the most terrifying film ever made.

There are some films which are crimes against cinema. The Haunting (1999), while not a dreadful film in itself, is one of those - for besmirching the good name of the original in a welter of bad acting and CGI nonsense. In fact, I'm still of the opinion that whoever was responsible for the reprehensible idea of the remake had actually seen the similar The Legend Of Hell House and decided to remake that.

But, I digress. Let's not have an argument about who did what to whom, or why, or how. Let's just have a look at the original, brilliant and unsurpassable 1962 film, and not mention re-makes again (much)…

The Haunting is the scariest film ever made, I firmly believe this. It stands head and shoulders above every other horror film as the perfect example of how less is more. There's no blood, no (seen) monsters, and hardly any special effects. A great deal of the dialogue is spoken in voiceover, there's no violence, and in fact, only the barest of stories. All this should add up to a disastrous entry into the horror genre - but of course, it doesn't. Perhaps that's the reason why the remake just didn't work.

The real star of the film is the house, as our "hero" Dr Markway (Richard Johnson) explains: "Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide… the history of Hill House had everything I wanted. It was an evil house from the beginning… a house that was born bad."

Markway wants to conduct a paranormal investigation in the house, and after a brief history lesson explains to us that he hopes to find either "…a few loose floorboards… or maybe the key to another world?"

He's assembled a rag-bag of seemingly unconnected strangers to help him - Eleanor (Julie Harris), a miserable spinster who spent most of her life looking after her sick mother and has a history of creating paranormal "happenings" (such as stones falling on her house when she was 10 years old - something she now refuses to believe actually happened); Theo (Claire Bloom), a psychic lesbian (but not necessarily in that order); Luke (Russ Tamblin), the future owner of the house; and Markway himself, a self-appointed expert on the paranormal with a few woolly ideas on what is happening there and how it can be dealt with (plus a nice sensible cardigan).

Markway may be the catalyst for the story, but it's Eleanor who proves to be the driving force for the events that will unfold. She's a strange, fragile little woman - once abused by her now-dead mother, now abused by her sister and her family. Despite half owning the family car, she has to resort to stealing it to attend her appointment at Hill House. An appointment which she hopes will lead to bigger and better things ("I hope I hope I hope this is what I have been waiting for all my life…")

And it seems she has found what she's looking for, even as she drives up to the forbidding house, noting: "It's staring at me…"

With little personality of her own, and no prior experience of larger-than-life characters like Markway and Theo, Eleanor immediately falls for both of them (though in the case of Theo, her attraction appears to be purely non-sexual, despite Theo's predatory confidence). Theo immediately re-christens her "Nell" and on meeting Markway for the first time, Eleanor comments: "It's Theo who's wearing velvet, so I must be Eleanor in tweed…"

But all this is just scene setting - although, as Markway has already stated, the presence of people like themselves should help stimulate some kind of activity in the house (so perhaps he's more astute than his broom cupboard-clowning activities would lead us to believe? Never trust a man with a moustache, my old mum used to say…). Eleanor (egged on by Theo) is becoming more and more convinced that she belongs in the house, and after dinner, with everyone off to bed, the fun begins…

To list exactly what happens to the visitors would spoil it for those who haven't yet seen the film, but it's fair to say that anyone who's expecting sedate chills is in for a shock. The first night, from the moment Eleanor wakes to the sound of unearthly banging (oo-er) mumbling "All right mother, all right…" to the point where she realises "Now I've done it… it was looking for the room with someone inside!" ranks as one of the scariest scenes in any film ever (as well as a testament to what can be achieved with a few VERY LOUD sound effects and some hysterical women).

From that moment on, the audience is experiencing the same terror that Eleanor and Theo are - what was behind the door? What happens if it gets in? And everything else that happens in the film - whether it's a bit of graffiti ("It's my name, and it belongs to me… it knows my name!"), an innocuous statue ("Haven't you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move… until you look away?"), a wonky bookcase, a shadowy "face" cast by moonlight hitting the raised pattern on the wallpaper ("Whose hand was I holding?"), or even just the fact that the nursery door is open (believe me), becomes absolutely chilling.

Eleanor's already fragile psyche takes a bit of a bruising when she first realises why Theo is taking such an interest (calling her one of "nature's mistakes") and she's then introduced to Markway's wife, Grace (who, in a fit of pique, Eleanor puts in mortal danger - something she immediately regrets but can't undo).

As the previous nights' happenings prove to be nothing but an opening salvo, Eleanor finally realises her destiny (and the audience is treated to a trapdoor-related shock which is guaranteed to get you every… single… time).

"It's happening to you, Eleanor… at last, something is really, really happening to me…"

The Haunting is quite rare in that it not only delivers the goods from a horror film point of view, but that it's also packed with interesting characters, psychological observations and brilliant cinematography (the disconcerting angles used, the bizarre outdoor footage shot on infra-red film to give the house an other-worldly quality). In other words, it's the kind of film a clever-dick film student can really get their teeth into (and indeed, many have). But first and foremost, it should be watched, and enjoyed, as a brilliant horror film, which manages to deliver the chills right up until the last, brilliant line.

"…we who walk here… walk alone…"

Last updated: February 23, 2010

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The Haunting 1962

The Haunting 1962

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