This film, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, was a bit chilling but not at all frightening. However, in order to give it its fair shake, one must place it in its time, 1963… which requires a certain amount of leniency. Simpletons beware, 1963 means no CGI. It’s also in black and white. But cheer up Charlie, because this is partly what makes this film so brilliant. In order to judge this film fairly, we should compare it with the other horror films of its time like: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds and 5 years later (1968), Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and not films of a more effects-driven nature.
Although this film will not scare the modern, desensitized audience, we should pay it a great deal of respect. First off, director Robert Wise did an amazing job and created an intelligent film that captures us the old-fashioned way, by invoking terror through what is unseen, unknown, and unsettling. The camera-work was the next best thing… with the sudden and dramatic zoom… the erratic panning of the camera as if it were our own eyes, desperate, and searching for the cause of our fear. With this, I made the instant connect that perhaps, Sam Raimi [director of the cult classics The Evil Dead Trilogy] got great inspiration from this film. Anyone else make that connection?
The story is this: Supernatural scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) enlists the help of Eleanor “Nell” (Julie Harris), Theodora “Theo” (Claire Bloom) and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) to attract and research the paranormal activity of the supposedly haunted Hill House. Once inside “the house that was born bad”, tensions mount, unexplainable occurrences arise, and we, as an audience are trapped by their side the entire time.
I may have scored this movie a bit harshly, but it’s at least a solid 7 claws. Deductions were based on obstreperous Julie Harris (although she had her delightful moments) having left me wanting to run the vacuum cleaner to drown out her drivel. But then, with the “solid 7” in mind, I returned to the realization that this character (“Nell”) is supposed to be a fuddy-duddy, inept in all areas of human relationship. How else is she supposed to act? Still… she can be a wrist-slasher, so beware. It would have been unprofessional of me to make a deduction there.
The faults of the film, in my opinion, came from the end of the film. I do my best not to give away any spoilers… so I will refrain from giving away too much. What I will say is that there is a time inconsistency that I shake my head at. If you don’t catch it yourself… forget about it! Next, Hill House’s full-on skeptic, Luke, is all-of-a-sudden “convinced” quite conveniently (I suppose to wrap the story up) by saying “It (Hill House) should be burned down, and the ground sown with salt”. The story ends without much more. I think many who watch this film will be left at the end, a little underwhelmed and a bit empty. But nevertheless a classic and superior to its 1999 remake.