It was well understood by producer Val Lewton that what is imagined is almost always more frightening than what is shown on the screen. Director Robert Wise worked extensively with Lewton and learned this lesson well, putting it to good use in this adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
, widely considered to be one of the best horror films ever made. And it does so entirely on atmosphere and psychology, never once showing any spirits or ghosts onscreen.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) attempts to assemble a team of investigators of psychic phenomena to visit the evil Hill House, an ominous New England mansion. But only two show up: the nervously frail Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and the sardonic psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom). The skeptical nephew of the house's aged absentee owner also comes along for the ride to check out his future inheritance. A series of mysterious occurrences, particularly centering on Eleanor, give rise to some terrifying moments as the house seems determined not to let them stay nor to let them leave.
Although The Haunting
seems almost quaint in its restraint, especially compared to the 1999 color remake starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, it's undeniable that the original is far the superior and more frightening film. Lewton's rule is no small part of the effect; where the 1999 version feels compelled to show its jaded audiences everything (and thus comes up wanting), the 1963 model plays upon the unknown and unseen to tremendous effect.
Of course, having a lead of the caliber of Julie Harris doesn't hurt either. She gives life to Eleanor as a guilt-ridden depressive, on the edge of a breakdown. Her performance helps give a second subtextual edge, echoing that of James' Turn of the Screw
: there may not be any ghosts at all, but we may be perceiving everything through the eyes of a woman having a nervous breakdown. Johnson makes for a believable psychic investigator, not overly credulous but not dismissive either. Claire Bloom's lesbian psychic is quite unnerving throughout, especially in her quiet rage at rejection by Eleanor, making her a threat in and of herself. If there is a weak point, it's Russ Tamblyn, who rather overplays the callow youth. A bit more subtlety in this rather jarring performance would have fit the tone much better. Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond films) has a small but important part as Markway's skeptical wife.
The film is full of subtle technical virtuosity, expressing the ominous in camera angles, the rhythm of cuts and occasional (and restrained) use of distorting lenses. There are also some extraordinary deep focus shots that are quite beautiful in their composition. The result is extremely well-crafted and still chilling. Like Eleanor you may find yourself not ever wanting to leave Hill House....Rating for Style:
ARating for Substance:
Image Transfer Review:
|Aspect Ratio||2.35:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
The source print is quite clean, with only occasional speckling marring the image. Grain tends to be fairly heavy, and while often rendered well in dark sequences it tends to be a bit sparkly. Ringing is occasionally visible on very high contrast elements of shots, and aliasing is generally under control, though Markway's corduroy jacket is problematic at times. Greyscale is excellent, as are textures and shadow detail. While it may not look perfect on a very large screen, the black-and-white picture is generally rendered quite well.Image Transfer Grade:
Audio Transfer Review:
| ||Language||Remote Access|
The 2.0 mono track has a bit of noise and hiss present, but in general the dialogue comes through fine. Music tends to sound slightly thin and distorted, and is quite lacking in bass. Dialogue is rather on the tinny side, resulting in a fairly pedestrian track, which certainly doesn't conjure images of the remake's massive bass levels.Audio Transfer Grade:
Static menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature commentary by director Robert Wise, screenwriter Nelson Gidding, Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
Layers Switch: 00h:30m:42sExtra Extras:
- Excerpts from Wise's copy of the screenplay
- Still and poster gallery
- Essay on ghosts in movies
The principal extra is a commentary that is assembled from interviews with the director, screenwriter, and all four stars. The two women unfortunately have very little to say, with Johnson tending to dominate the discussion. The interview segments are cleverly edited together to make it seem screen-specific, but towards the end there are numerous lengthy silences. The commentary is nonetheless full of technical information and anecdotes regarding the filming, including Shirley Jackon's participation and the conflicts in interpretation between Harris and Wise.
A variety of other materials are provided as well, including a few pages from Wise's copy of the screenplay, with copious marginal notes, a bulging still and poster gallery, and a brief and disappointing essay on ghosts in the movies. Wrapping up the package is an anamorphic widescreen trailer in decent shape, considering its age.Extras Grade:
Robert Wise's classic and psychologically complex ghost story comes to DVD with plenty of supplements and a good transfer. Highly recommended.
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