Is it bad that, as far as the haunted-house subgenre goes, I prefer The Legend of Hell House to Robert Wise’s very respectable, mature adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s then-recent novel? Both are based on a team of investigators setting up shop in a famously haunted abode – Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape does something similar – but John Hough’s film of Richard Matheson’s novel simply wants to have unapologetic fun with the premise. The Haunting goes for a less tangible vibe – night and day compared to the recent Netflix incarnation – but I’m not sure it quite pulls it off.
It may be this element that Pauline Kael recognised when she recounted how a section of the audience she saw the film with “wasn’t merely bored, it was hostile – as if the movie, by assuming interests they didn’t have, made them feel resentful or inferior… In their terms they were cheated: nothing happened”. That ambiguity isn’t a problem with either of the other versions of the source material, of course. On the other hand, neither are nearly as good as Wise’s picture.
Nelson Gidding originally fashioned his adaptation very much in a metaphorical perspective; everything that transpires is within the mind of Eleanor (Julie Harris), who is experiencing a nervous breakdown, and those she encounters and the phenomena she experiences are reflections of the institution (Richard Johnson’s Dr Markway becomes her shrink). He backpedalled on this when Jackson told him the novel wasn’t intended to be read that way, but it’s still easy to see much of that interiority in the character of Eleanor and the subjective gaze she’s given throughout.
Indeed, it’s surely no coincidence that MCU-hating Martin Scorsese, who vouched for the film as his all-time favourite horror, should have been attracted to schlocky detective-noir disappointment Shutter Island, which operates on exactly that basis (but to the point of inanity). There’s much in The Haunting that’s masterfully executed: Claire Bloom’s barely unstated lesbian Theo (“The world’s full of unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes, they’re called. You, for instance”), adopting a playful manner towards the very literal, open Eleanor; Johnson’s Markway is your definitive classic cool-customer unflustered investigator (you watch and wonder why he didn’t have a long career as a leading man); Wise’s approach to the house is winningly perverse, making it bright, opulent and well-lit, rather than sinister, dusty and moody. Sure, there are Dutch angles and fish-eye lenses, but tonally, he’s more on board with the distanced Markway than diving into the first-person narrator perspective of Eleanor.
On that level, I’m inclined towards Russell Evans’ assumption that “few people truly find the film shocking or disturbing”. If Spielberg told Wise it was the scariest film ever made, he was simply blowing smoke up his ass. Throughout this visit to The Haunting, I was in the mind of how much more effective and genuinely unsettling Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, made two years earlier, is. A film that also functions along a divide between its protagonist’s perception of the real and imagined, one hinging on their sexual repression.
I think, if The Haunting comes up short in comparison, it’s because Gidding’s screenplay bashes us round the head with Eleanor’s neurosis to the point that she begins to become tiresome, rather than someone we’re sympathetic towards. On one level, Harris’ performance is supremely compelling, but it’s also overpowering, cumulatively testing our patience (akin to Lambert being the main character in Alien, rather than Ripley).
The early scenes of Eleanor breaking away from an oppressive family put us on her side, and her car journey interior monologue is suggestive of Marion Crane in Psycho, but the twist is that she’s her own Norman Bates, that her sibling’s apparent berating and character assassination is really protecting her fragile mental state.
That there are spooky goings-on in the house as experienced by others (spectral hounds, unaccounted for noises and movements) might be seen as relating to Eleanor’s history of poltergeist phenomena, as much as being engineered by Hill House (“It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad”). And whatever happens to Mrs Markway (Lois Maxwell), evidently turning up at the house because she suspects hubby of inappropriate behaviour in the name of scientific investigation, could simply reflect Markway’s psychology-tinged warning to Luke (Russ Tamblyn) earlier: “A closed mind is the worst defence against the supernatural”. Yet it’s notable that the backdrop of the house allows for the characters’ underlying sexual psychodramas to play out, except – ironically – for presumably the youngest and so most “piqued” (Luke).
One can see here where Mike Flanagan might have got his idea for the house as (SPOILER) a comforting presence for a distressed soul. Even though there’s never any characterisation or presentation of spooks, Eleanor’s conviction that “I’m the one who’s supposed to stay here” resolves itself with her car wreck and the conclusion that “It was what she wanted. She had no place else to go. The house belongs to her now too”. Which you wouldn’t call upbeat, exactly, but certainly as ambiguous as the rest of the picture.
Wise shot the film in the UK, even though it’s set in New England, and with Johnson’s lead and support from Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the accent-sporting housekeepers, it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be set in the States. At times too, it’s easy to forget it’s supposed to be a horror film. I suspect this lack of emphasis on “cheap” tactics is part of the reason it’s held in such esteem. But as good as it is, it might have been even better if the ambiguity of the supernatural had extended to the presentation of Eleanor’s unsettled mental state.