Two horror masterclasses from 1963 on Midnight Screenings.
Objectivity and subjectivity fraternize and jumble in Robert Wise’s The Haunting, an adaptation of a book by Shirley Jackson that traces the contours of a seemingly antediluvian manse as a proxy for, and a catalyst of, the frigid, fractured topography of a mind in mortal catastrophe. The mansion is Hill House, one of those forlorn, heavy things out of America’s New England aristocracy, and the mind is worn by Eleanor (Julie Harris). Beleaguered by poltergeist activity in her youth, she grew up to spend her adult life conscripted into caring for her invalid mother, who has recently passed when the film begins. Wracked with guilt, Eleanor’s newest lot in life is as a case study in an experiment by John Markaway (Richard Johnson), testing Hill House for mysterious happenings by subjecting it to a duo of supernatural-prone potential victims for its frisky haunting shenanigans. Eleanor and Hill House will initiate a non-verbal (although certainly not non-sonic) dialectic throughout the film, the results of which are … well, whatever they be, they’re the underwire for one of the great horror films of all time.
Also along for the ride are Theodora (Claire Bloom), the other spectrally-attuned citizen, and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the heir apparent to the mansion whose eyes alight not for paranormal happenings but for the economic value of the mansion. Although it must be said, the film isn’t much wont to tie itself up in knots juggling these side characters with protagonist Eleanor’s imbroglio; Wise and company know exactly where their eyes ought to be trained, allowing the architectural monstrosity that dominates the characters to cast a pall over the film, but especially Eleanor. A Welles’ disciple in his youth (the dude edited no less a work than Citizen Kane), Wise was multivariate and tonally promiscuous as a visualist but always united in his formal adventurousness, never more so than in The Haunting.
Many of his other films – for reference, The Haunting was filmed in between his dueling blockbuster behemoths West Side Story and The Sound of Music – mistake boldface style for illustrious craftsmanship (he also directed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture). But The Haunting siphons the excess away, leaving only a crucible of pure cinema in place. Wise was famously uncovetous when it came to maintaining a singular tone throughout his career, and even if he didn’t leap between moods with all the nimble grace in the world, nothing in his filmography exactly suggests the agitated, panicked racket he raises out of pure sight and sound here. But once the human pegs are all ensconced inside, the house clears its throat, and the characters inside tumble to avoid certain doom.
Arguably the only black and white horror to insinuate itself into your mind quite like the slinky, feline chiaroscuro strut of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, The Haunting shows that Robert Wise was paying attention when he directed that film’s auspicious sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. Furthermore, it shows he was in it for the intrinsic value of learning from his betters; flouting expectations, Curse was no horror film at all (although The Body Snatcher, another film Wise directed for Lewton, was at least horror-adjacent). A drama of sorts, it didn’t beg for the husky chiaroscuro of horror; Wises’ eyes were glued to Lewton’s skill for terror not because they had to be for Wise’s immediate output but because Wise wanted the toolkit for his future artistic edification. Over twenty years after Cat People, Wise put that toolkit to use in what would became the first American film to equal (maybe even advance) that 1942 film’s inimitable paradox of minimalistic suggestion and formally audacious rambunctiousness.
That dialectic, the minimal and the maximal, encapsulates The Haunting’s alacrity in a nutshell; minimalism is the go-to word for the film, but like Cat People, this isn’t minimalism that hides under your bed patiently waiting for you to get up in order to grab you. A masterpiece of closeted suggestion and slithering insinuation, minimalism is a smash-bang grenade of unopened mortal fear here, and if Wise admirably restrains from “showing” the ghosts, he certainly isn’t above having fun with the skeletal structure of the house, and of cinema. His designers Elliot Scott and John Jarvis chart the landscape of dreaded aristocracy and fear in the tactility of Hill House itself. And Wise enjoins himself to have a field day with canted, grotesque angles that showcase the house as an outré conflagration between disparate architectural styles corralled toward each other’s throats. The effect is a mansion designed by a monstrosity or a monstrosity adopting the façade or grotesque facsimile of something it was told might enrapture the attention of well-to-do society types, food for its maw. The specters of the past are enshrined in the creaky psychosis of the physical space, attached invisibly to the aura of the house, rather than unanchored to roam about.
While they make play with the throngs of the cinematic sound department, mind you. If Davis Boulton’s unmooring camerawork – the camera panning and tracking like an out-of-body experience – is inspired and otherworldly, then the team of sound designers are just divine. The film’s most infamous scene – a couple of fleshy human portals, bundles of jagged nerves by now, alone in a room as the hounds of hell seem to lap at the closed doors – is nerve-frying cinema of suggestion at its most harried. All implied threat, it’s a fiendish pitch-black trick of a scene etched exclusively in a camera that climbs into your skull and a tympanic percussive blast that sounds like hell’s own Ringo Starr (except Ringo would try to keep time, while The Haunting’s aural countenance is remarkably unfastened).
The scene also pulls double-duty, knotting up the audience’s minds in a vicious whirl on one hand, and tracing Eleanor’s already knotty mind on the other. Eleanor herself is a bundle of neurotic brambles, her fragmented consciousness prey for a predating location and a wellspring that faded manse’s very capacity to prowl in the first place, allowing the film’s aria of unquantifiable geometry to brave the increasingly non-linear tendrils of her own traumatized mind. Every clattering sound is a tantrum of the mind, every edit a marker of her subjective self bleeding together with the objectivity of the mansion, every shadow or shaft of light invasive as a matter of necessity rather than mere formal showmanship. A cross-hatch of “suggest, don’t show” and “showmanship above all”, Wise isn’t filling his spaces without buckets of blood and the like, but he certainly isn’t stapling a “visual vacancies” sign to the film.
While the so-called horror intelligentsia is quick to devour the reputation of body-count horror for its lack of mystique and delicacy, minimalism itself is often passé, like a private mental exercise in fawning over unintrusive, invisible slivers of style interspersed like pin-pricks. The Haunting, countering that assumption, is a heaving, bodily cinematic envoy to your brain. Minimalism The Haunting may be, but it’s minimalism reaching to the rafters, minimalism spreading outward. And I do mean spreading. A spillover of the early ‘60s and Wise’s otherwise elephantine productions during this period, the mansion is photographed in the anamorphic Panavision style so thick on the ground in period epics and musicals around this time. Needless to say, The Haunting is neither of those styles, but the wide screen neutralizes a horror film’s usual tricks of claustrophobic framing, forcing Wise to adopt a more cunning, less obviously limited perspective. Instead, Wise mounts an all-fronts attack by showcasing the lateral and longitudinal expanse of the mansion looming over your soul, watching you from every corner, gifting us with vision of this mansion that Wise sets to “throb”.
Ironically, Wise’s directorial outings around this time (and after) would scupper away the fastidious rhythm he learned editing for Welles in his youth; works like Star Trek: The Motion Picture are, their successes aside, colossally under-edited so that they spiral out into the stratosphere with no cutting to fasten them down and away from catastrophe. The Haunting is the best of both worlds: retaining Wises’ tympanic no-nonsense gruffness in the editing room while summoning Welles’ ever-charismatic marshalling of screen width, length, and depth so that the nature of the emotions are engraved in the physical caliber of the cinema itself. Perhaps not the most experimental film in the horror canon, but as a work of craft, it is nearly the most effective.
Ultimately, it goes without saying that The Haunting is ambivalent to the core, but I do wish to conclude with a plea for the value of not falling back on the trap of character psychology to excuse the questions a film like The Haunting raises. If the characters are insane, this would be a personal calamity, surely, but the actual presence of a ghost suggests not a superficial retreat into literalism, as many readers and critics believe, but a much deeper and more fundamental fissure in the nature of rationalism, the very psychological architecture of Western thought being disfigured before our eyes, possibly beyond repair. I understand the value of a film where inward fears are corporealized by the anxieties of the mind into pseudo-physical entities. But consider the devastating possibility not only that the ghosts might be real but that they crucially might not emanate from within her, that the world might not conform to the liberal assumption that everything is a theater of one character’s self.
Rather than viewing this manse as a location overtaken by one character who haunts it with projections of their own mind, specters of herself that allow her to play out personal fears in its halls, the film may also – if the ghosts are literal – challenge not only the authenticity of its characters’ minds but the legitimacy of empiricism and rationalism altogether. Not only does this jeopardize the fate of one atomized mind within this particular story, but it shatters our understanding of reality beyond the temporal and spatial confines of this one house or this one mind, beyond the narrative diegesis within which we wish to subdue The Haunting’s dismembering interrogation of reality itself.
Either way, however, The Haunting’s perhaps irresolvable interstitial state between psychological and literal implies a disjunctive place of total mental and emotional collapse. Following in the footsteps of Marker, Resnais, and Antonioni, it also, crucially, provides a point of celluloid exposure to unfettered fragments of modernistic anxiety that steep cinema in such a sense of subjective dread that any pretense of truth content is shattered. Film’s mask of objectivity is ripped to pieces by the dawning realization of the silences and absences in meaning that lie below the visual, beneath the threshold of cinematic perception, beyond the point where simply looking at a face and a door in a mansion can really tell us what is going on before our eyes. Or what havoc it may wreak on our deepest sense of self.