Guilt-ridden Eleanor (Julie Harris) is summoned to a haunted house by a paranormal investigator and serial mansplainer (Richard Johnson) in this 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Having started his career in the horror genre, Robert Wise directed this psychological chiller in between West Side Story and The Sound of Music, bringing the same sense of scale to an intimate character study with a barely concealed lesbian subtext. The haunting itself is relatively subdued compared to post-Amityville fare, limited to banging on walls and the odd bit of ghostly graffiti. Wise overcompensates somewhat with histrionic direction, but never loses sight of the interior horror that makes the story so intriguing.
The Haunting faithfully keeps in most of what lurks inside Jackson’s svelte novel: her wonderful turn of phrase, ghoulish humour and chilling ambiguity surrounding Eleanor’s paranoia. The biggest change positions the professor as a romantic interest for Eleanor, and his wife (Lois “Miss Moneypenny” Maxwell) a sceptic, making Eleanor even more helpless given his unavailability and self-designated power over her.
Hill House is suitably imposing, the black-and-white photography and spooky sound design giving the moody mansion lived/died-in character. Apparently Panasonic’s prototype wide-angle lens caused distortions, which Wise turned to the film’s advantage using unusual angles and disorienting shots to reflect the house’s distorted architecture and Eleanor’s warped state of mind, making you feel you’ve seen more than you have. The effect is one of atmospheric, character-led horror, and an LGBT genre classic to rival The Babadook.