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The Haunting (1963)
Director Robert Wise's The Haunting begins with both guns blazing, so to speak. As a haunted house film, it starts beautifully--Wise lingers on an eerie black and white shot of Hill House while narration tells us the creepy backstory, which is chock full of death--suicides, probable murders, early intimations that some spiritual force intertwined with the house itself killed people, etc.
From there, we meet Dr. John Markway, an anthropologist, but one who chose anthropology because he felt it was the closest respectable academic discipline to the study of ghosts or "supernatural manifestations." Wise is still full steam ahead at this point, as we learn that Markway intends to lease Hill House for a period of at least a few months and that he intends to invite what he suggests are colleagues (but who turn out to be guinea pigs) to help him in his studies.
The problems begin once we meet the guinea pigs. In particular, as soon as we're introduced to Eleanor Lance. The first two scenes, described in my first two paragraphs, expressed classical horror atmosphere and classical sci-fi brewings in turn -- suggesting a film that would lead to an intriguing mix of the two genres; one that might have resembled "traditional" 1950's sci-fi horror but with Universal eeriness in place of AIP camp. In the scene where we first meet Eleanor, Wise loses his footing and drags out a strange, straight drama, where Eleanor argues about whether she can use her sister's car or not.
That scene wouldn't have to count as a near-fatal blow. At this point, we're still at The Haunting's cover, really, and a torn dustjacket isn't going to ruin the book. As we watch Eleanor drive to Hill House, we discover that the first two pages were torn with the cover, as well. Eleanor narrates her drive by uttering what amounts to inanities; or at least expressing things that we could care less about. She pangs for a house with stone lions guarding the gate, for instance. It's like a pretentious, but very bad, writer thinking they're creating the thinking man's version of a similar, infamous scene from Psycho.
Once Eleanor reaches Hill House, Wise shows signs of recovery. The caretaker is creepy, and his wife is even better. The house in these scenes, while nowhere near as atmospheric as the opening shot, is still intriguing. When Theodora arrives, the sequence is still going strong (thanks in large part to the caretaker's wife).
Unfortunately, from this point, The Haunting falters as frequently as it works. There are many problems, the worst of them a continuation of the narration that we endured while Eleanor took her drive. The temptation may be to blame scripter Nelson Gidding for this, but the blame more strongly lies with novelist Shirley Jackson, whose book "The Haunting of Hill House" was the source of the story. I've only read Jackson's book once, about two years ago, and I have to say that I absolutely hated it. It's content is overflowing with sentences like the one about the stone lions, "cups of stars," etc. as well as ridiculous, but ostensibly serious dialogue. Gidding actually tempers the pretensions of the book as well as he can while still being able to call the film an adaptation. Still, I think the continual narration by Eleanor was a huge mistake, and would have been even if she weren't constantly uttering irritating nonsense. If you watch The Haunting while mentally blocking out the narration, the absence makes every scene otherwise marred by it work exponentially better.
Another problem, in my eyes at least, since when I put on a film with a name and premise like The Haunting, I really want to see a horror film, is that Wise's creation (because this is also true of Jackson's book) more often resides in another genre. This is really a film about relationships and the complex triangle (which at various times becomes a weak quadrangle) between Theodora, Eleanor and Dr. Markway. Theodora is at least a bisexual and has a thing for Eleanor. Eleanor knows this, although she acts oblivious most of the time, and despite her ingrained rejection of homosexuality, seems ambiguously undecided about what she should do (also possibly a factor of the public pretensions of the era). At the same time, she's got the hots for Dr. Markway, who plays knowing but mostly publicly oblivious to her desires, primarily because he's married. Then there's Luke Sanderson, who is more of an aloof playboy type, just as content to hang out, but if one of the women were interested, he'd be game, etc. Despite its superficial trappings, this film is really just a bad soap opera.
When The Haunting does get to those superficial trappings--the "horror" material--it is inert as often as not. Some things work nicely--the banging, the stretching wall and the cold spot. But some things fail as badly as the narration--the evil "lack of right angles" (it really has plenty--did someone misinform the construction crew?), the library stairs and the self-closing doors are examples.
Despite its promising beginning, and its Twilight-Zone-like ending, The Haunting fails because of the lack of focus. Wise and Gidding should have taken the premise, trashed most of Jackson's narrative, and created a quality haunted house film--the good material shows they had it in them. As it stands, if The Haunting is quality horror, Hellraiser is a completely believable, realistic drama.