Written by Nelson Gidding, based on the novel The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Directed by Robert Wise
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture
Starring: Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance); Richard Johnson (Dr. John Markway); Claire Bloom (Theodora); Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sanderson); Fay Compton (Mrs. Sanderson); Rosalie Crutchley (Mrs. Dudley); Lois Maxwell (Grace Markway); Valentine Dyall (Mr. Dudley); Howard Lang (Hugh Crain); Janet Mansell (Abigail Crain, 8 years-old); Rosemary Dorken (The Companion)
In 1959, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House to universal acclaim. If you have not read this seminal novel of ghosts and mental instability, please stop reading this article right now, go find a copy of The Haunting of Hill House, read all of it and come back. It’s that good. No literate person should go through life without reading this book and now here’s your chance. I’m giving you an excuse so, go for it. Don’t worry; I’m a patient guy. I’ll wait for you.
Ah, there you are. Wasn’t that good? I thought so too. Sometime we’ll talk about it, but this is a film column, so you won’t mind if we press ahead and take a look at what happened when Robert Wise adapted the novel to the 1963 film The Haunting.
The reason I had you read the novel is because it’s important understand how difficult to turn a novel such as Jackson’s, where Jackson’s prose is so important and one of the great joys of the novel, into a film where a great deal of what she achieved must, by the very nature of the art of film adaptation (and yes, it is an art), be left behind. There is simply no way that Jackson’s marvelous opening paragraph, where she describes Hill House and almost nonchalantly mentions that “whatever walked there, walked alone,” is going to give us the same chills when recited (in edited form) by Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markway. Wise has to try a more visual method of telling Jackson’s story, while still adhering to the dialog and situations as he sees fit. For the most part, both he and screenwriter Nelson Gidding succeed and the result is a film that is still rightly considered one of the most intense and frightening ghost stories in cinematic history.
Although we are introduced to the history of Hill House and the character of Dr. Markway first, the film is really the story of Eleanor Lance (the magnificent Julie Harris), a woman who has spent the bulk of her adult life caring for her ailing mother and, now that the woman has recently died, finds herself without an anchor in life. A spinster before reaching middle-age (Harris was thirty-seven when she played the part), Eleanor rents out the front parlor from her sister’s family (she sleeps on the couch) and is forced to beg to use the family car that she partially paid for. And that’s just what she’s doing when we are introduced to her; she’s just received a letter from Dr. Markway to spend a week at Hill House (strangely, she never thinks to wonder why she was invited and is later disturbed when she learns that it is due to a poltergeist experience that she would rather forget) and she wails that she deserves the car so she can take her first real vacation. However, when we get a peek into her thoughts during her drive to Hill House (after she’s practically stolen the car), we realize that she is entertaining the idea of never going back home (she even considers not going to Hill House at all, just driving until the car collapses around her). It is a little off-putting to continually be privy to Eleanor’s thoughts via voiceover tracks (and this will continue throughout the film), but Wise saw the film as an illustration of one woman’s mental collapse (only after finishing the film did he meet with Jackson who said that there were indeed real ghosts in Hill House and the haunting was not meant to be symbolic of Eleanor’s tenuous grasp on reality).
Harris’s performance as Eleanor perfectly conveys that of a woman desperately trying to start a fresh new life and be happy but is forever stubbing her newly-painted toes on her deep-seated neurosis. Eleanor often acts as if her social graces are on loan to her for the week and hasn’t quite got the hang of how to actually use them: her jokes are stilted, she overreacts to playful nudges from Theodora (the voluptuous Claire Bloom), and gets angry as a way of dealing with being afraid (when she finds her name scrawled on the walls, she accuses Theo of having written it). It is clear that Eleanor is enthralled by her new compatriots (if for no other reason than she’s never had any friends before), but her mind has been stunted by the eleven years she spent taking care of her mother and doing little else. Her hopes for a normal life hinge on finding love, particularly with Dr. Markway (a change from the novel, where Luke is the object of Eleanor’s desires). Instead, she becomes the apple of Theodora’s eye (something that Eleanor isn’t prepared to entertain) and she makes “a fool of herself” (Theodora’s words) when tries to win Dr. Markway’s affections, only to discover later that he is married. This realization that she won’t be spirited away into a new home and life as Eleanor Markway causes her to commit her one spiteful act; she challenges Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell) to sleep in the nursery, the apparent heart of the hauntings. True, she immediately tries to take back her challenge, but the hard-headed Grace Markway is not one to be frightened by ghosts (at least not yet). Grace’s decision to sleep in the nursery sets up a chain of events that leads to Eleanor’s death, so her challenge can be seen as a thoughtless shot taken at a romantic rival that fatally backfired.
Of the hauntings themselves, very little is seen (in keeping with Jackson’s story and writing style) and that is exactly what keeps this film as terrifying as it has been for fifty years. Much of Hill House’s menace comes from its looming structure (helped immensely by the black and white photography) and from the set design within. Dr. Markway says that there isn’t a single square corner in the entire house and, from the look of the sets, we believe him. Every room feels like there’s something wrong with it, like there is just one too many pictures on the wall or that the mirrors are leaning slightly further from the wall than they ought to. Corridors jut off at odd angles and the bedrooms, as wonderfully furnished as they are, seem to have just a little too much bric-a-brak on the shelves. Hill House is off-putting, especially at night when Eleanor and Theo find themselves alone while something sounding like a cannonball bounces off the walls in the corridor outside. This is an incredible sequence that puts the audience on the edge of their seats; Eleanor and Theo cower in each other’s arms as whatever is making that sound gets closer to their room (and again it gives us a detail concerning the personality of the two women; Theo allows herself to be genuinely afraid while Eleanor makes several attempts at bluff braveness, calling Theo a big baby at one point, until she finds herself cowering in Theo’s arms). The real test for any horror film is whether its scares hold up on subsequent viewings (after the outcomes of the threatened characters are revealed). Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, and The Evil Dead all pass this test. So does The Haunting… with flying colors.
Also passing the test (for the most part) are the supporting players. Claire Bloom is given the difficult job of playing a lesbian in 1963 when such things were not seen on the silver screen (strange to think that a film that pioneered horror couldn’t find a way to stretch its oddities to include an openly lesbian character… but them’s wuz the times), but she plays her character well, wanting Eleanor but not daring to make her desires known like so many homosexuals in the early 1960s. Watch her eyes whenever Eleanor and Markway seem to get too friendly to see the true face of jealousy (a mask that Eleanor will briefly wear herself when Grace turns up at Hill House). Bloom does well with a difficult character; her ESP and her sexuality has made her character sarcastic and smarmy, but her care for Eleanor is genuine: listen to her pleading voice when Eleanor is ascending the unstable spiral staircase in the library or when, just before Eleanor’s finally departure from Hill House, Theo says “I thought you weren’t going to say goodbye,” and she tells her to be happy. The only shame of Bloom’s performance, and this seems to be more the fault of Wise’s direction, is that Theo is not allowed to be more sorrowful at the scene of Eleanor’s death. Three minutes before, Theo was asking for this woman that she was obviously in love with to try and be happy, and now she is standing over her mangled corpse; a few bitter tears wouldn’t be out of the question.
No longer the love interest of Eleanor, Russ Tamblyn’s Luke still plays a vital part in the film. True, he is a much needed cynic (to balance out Dr. Markway’s unswerving belief) and comic relief, but most impressive is the moment his cynicism crumbles when he witnesses the library door bulging from the weight of whatever the Hell is on the other side. We’ve been waiting for Luke, who’s been spending the entire film fantasizing how he’ll make tons of money off Hill House, to finalize realize what kind of cesspool he’ll soon be inheriting. It’s not a total surprise when Tamblyn whispers “Hey Doc, I’ll let you have the house cheap,” but his delivery of the line works, especially when coupled with the marvelous shot of the alcoholic Luke dropping his whiskey bottle so that it remains standing. For once, Luke seems something beyond his life of cards and whiskey, and it scares the shit out him.
Less impressive is Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway. This may not seem fair, but there’s something about Markway that I just don’t trust. Maybe that’s important to the film, but it doesn’t give me any pleasure to see Markway ignore his professional obligations and keep the obviously unstable Eleanor at Hill House. On their final night, he tells Eleanor that he should’ve sent her away when she first arrived, but he sounds like a scientist covering his ass more than a concerned friend. He needed Eleanor, especially when they found her name scrawled all over Hill House’s walls, and he allowed her neurosis to keep her there as long as he needed her. He doesn’t even seem all that concerned about his wife’s abduction by the house or Eleanor’s death (he’d rather take the time to note that she died against the same tree that the first Mrs. Crain did). This comes down to Johnson’s own performance; he’s a limited actor who I believe made a few bad choices when tackling this role. Time and again, he plays Markway as a man who is more interested in the phenomena of Hill House than the welfare of the two women he’s lured there. Upon reflection, it’s a shame that Eleanor should’ve found herself so attracted to the blackguard, but she is looking for a way out of her drab life and thus can be forgiven. Richard Johnson wasn’t the greatest of actors; his lines showing concern for Eleanor sound like nothing but platitudes and his presence in the film is one of the only misguided points of The Haunting.
Despite its minor flaws, The Haunting is a perfect example of how to adapt a great novel into a great film. There are minor changes, like the changes of names for both Eleanor (Vance to Lance) and Dr. Markway (Montague to Markway) and major changes that work for the film (the Doctor’s cynical wife in the film is a major change from the novel where Mrs. Montague is a believer in spiritualism and even brings a quack medium to Hill House with her). But more than anything, we have to remember that we are watching a truly beautiful film with mostly great performances and visuals that place us straight into the pit of terror. The Haunting gives us a beautifully complex character like Eleanor Lance, as played by the beautifully complex Julie Harris, and forces us to accept the world as she sees it for the next two hours. In the end, we’re given her own voice as testament to the horrors that have happened: “…and we who walked here, walk alone.”
We walk alone? Are there a bevy of ghosts roaming through the halls of Hill House who cannot see each other? Is there anything worse than that?