The Haunting (1963)
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
by marginal gloss
I can clearly remember going to see the remake of The Haunting on its release in 1999, but I can’t remember why. It was rated ‘12’ by the BBFC, and I guess I was about 12 or 13 at the time, so perhaps I was just thrilled by the thought of going to see what looked like a big, dangerous film. The trailer was a combination of absurdly maximalist gothic majesty, fancy CGI gargoyles, and Catherine Zeta-Jones – watching it now, it’s all fairly ridiculous but at the time, I loved it. And I was utterly terrified.
I suppose our critical faculties are never at their sharpest in our early teens, when all films are still either brilliant or boring, as they were when we were children. At that age, it’s so much easier to get caught up in any film when we’re still vulnerable to the influence of what might later seem risible. Truly great films restore to us that sense of wonder, that suspension of disbelief that we associate with our childhood, and paradoxically, it’s now the original 1963 version of The Haunting that delivers to me that same energising sense of fear, mystery and dread that the remake originally inspired in my younger self eleven years ago.
The Haunting has but one intention in mind, one purpose, and that is to scare you. It begins with a superbly portentous introduction: ‘It was an evil house from the beginning…a house that was born bad…’ We know we’re going to see a haunted house movie, and the film wastes no time in confirming our expectations. We ought not to be scared so soon, but there’s no ratcheting-up of the tension here; the audience is thrown in at the deep end, or rather, at the dark end. We’re given a potted history of the house, which naturally involves a series of untimely and tragic deaths – particularly of women, we might note. Yet the suggestive shots of a fall on the stairs, a death in a horse-drawn carriage and a hanging are as violent as the film ever gets; it says much about the film that the most disturbing thing in the introduction is a child’s face morphing into that of an old woman. Age and youth and death; the dangers of repression and ambition; families destroyed by an obsessive father-figure; these are the key themes of the film, repeated as frequently as the visual tropes – the dark, heavy Edwardian furniture resting like miniature houses within houses, the heaps of nauseating chintz, mirrors reflecting upon mirrors, statues waiting like past selves frozen in time. There are no correct angles in the house. The place is tearing itself apart. Given enough time, every door slowly shuts.
The film centers on Eleanor, one of three sensitive individuals chosen by Dr. John Markway to spend time in the house as part of an experiment which he hopes will settle forever the question of the existence of ghosts. Eleanor is the only character here who is anything more than an archetype – it suffices to tell you that in the remake, the others were played by Owen Wilson, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones in perfectly typecast roles. In the original, we have access to Eleanor’s own thoughts in an internal monologue; she seems distant, dreamy, desperately vulnerable. She regards her invitation to the house as a way out from a difficult home life, and having spent most of her adult years looking after her slowly-dying mother, she feels that this is finally her chance to do something exciting with her life.
‘We live over in town, miles away,’ the housekeeper explains to Eleanor. ‘So there won’t be anyone around if you need help. We couldn’t hear you. In the night. No one could.’ Eleanor tries to ask something, but she won’t be interrupted. ‘No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that.’ she says. ‘In the night. In the dark.’ And then we are alone. ‘I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster,’ Eleanor says to herself.
But she isn’t alone for long – bursting into an adjoining room, she finds herself joined by Theo, a beautiful, confident and extroverted woman who immediately seems attracted to her room-mate in all kinds of sexy/unnerving ways. All through their first, over-excited meeting, the housekeeper is present, reciting word-for-word her earlier speech for the benefit of Theo. ‘In the night. In the dark.’ But the girls are laughing, not listening. Throughout the film, moments of raw terror are punctuated by these bursts of hysteria. But the question is not whether what proceeds is to be feared or embraced, since that creates a false dichotomy – in The Haunting, fear and lust, anxiety and ardor, walk hand in hand down these darkened hallways.
There are no ghosts seen in this film. No fluttering white sheets, no demonic grins full of blood and teeth, no faceless killers returned from the grave. Instead, the careful, innovative photography renders every scene uncanny; a deliberately distorted 30mm lens gives a deep sense of wrongness to the house throughout. The main scares come from what we hear. The loud banging in the walls at night. The creaks of warping wood, footsteps in the hall. A long shot of nothing but wallpaper is accompanied by the sound of distant, drunken singing. Is that a face? Then far away laughter, or crying.
None of this is necessarily supernatural, but it has a profound effect on Eleanor. Tortured by guilt over her mother’s death, and fascinated by the stories of the women who lived and died in the house (which seem almost identical to her own past) her already fragile mental condition is worked over by her surroundings into a state of frenzy – or should that be the other way round? The hauntings seem to rise and fall in accordance with her moods, and soon she refuses to leave, becomes distant and isolated from the rest of the group. ‘I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house,’ she thinks, wandering into the depths of darkness. The unstable spiral staircase in the library becomes a metaphor for the cyclical bouts of panic and ecstasy which seem to be leading her towards a place of no return. To climb after Eleanor, as Dr Markway does, is apparently to take one’s life into one’s hands – yet though the film frequently feels like her waking nightmare, she remains a mystery to us. We cannot follow all the way into her world.
There’s a parallel in The Haunting with a more recent ghost story: Paranormal Activity. And I’m not just saying that because both involve some very loud bumps in the night. Both revolve around the exploitation of distressed, sensitive young women by male figures of authority. In fact, the latter is far more interesting when considered as a film about domestic abuse than anything supernatural. The main difference between the two is that in The Haunting, the energy in and around Eleanor finally becomes self-destructive, but in Paranormal Activity, repressed rage is turned back upon the haunter, and ultimately on the audience themselves.
I found both of these conclusions more frustrating than affecting, though at least Paranormal Activity had a genuinely astonishing build-up to its big finish. The Haunting becomes muddled near the end; once it’s played its hand of scares, we’re left with much that is vague, unconvincing and inevitably unresolvable. The film’s most interesting themes are glossed over in favour of more running about in the dark, but in a film which works brilliantly as pure entertainment as well as brain-food, perhaps that’s excusable. I know I for one would be out running with them. In the night. In the dark.
marginal gloss lives in London.
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