Posted: 7/7/00

The Haunting (1963)
by Del Harvey

"An evil old house, the kind some people call 'haunted,' is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House has stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more. Silence lays steadily against the woods and stones of Hill House and whatever walked there, walked alone?"

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Considered by many critics, filmmakers and fans to be the most frightening horror film ever made, The Haunting does not stand up well to the test of time.

That said, let me add that some very simple camera angles and distorted sound, combined with the actors' expressions and talent, still far surpass the visual effects of most contemporary screamers.

The film is about a ghost-hunting professor (Richard Johnson, Khartoum, Deadlier Than The Male) and his volunteer team as they take up residence in an eerie old mansion that is known to have at least one ghost hovering between its forboding walls.

The film's success can be directly attributed to the remarkable performance of one actress: Julie Harris (East Of Eden, Pygmalion). It is her acting ability which allows the film to be truly horrific. Her frail, thin figure swaying like a reed in the shrieks of the hold house, the subtleties of her expressions, the look of sheer terror on her face, and the emotion in those incredible eyes; all of these things generate a response in the viewer which an army of special effects wizards failed to do in the sequel.

The scariest moment in the film involves a sequence in which Ms. Harris, asleep and dreaming, thinks she is holding the hand of her bunkie, Claire Bloom (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Charly). Using simple visual tricks with the camera and some very basic sound effects, along with Ms. Harris vocal intonations, the audience's belief is suspended long enough to think, without realizating, that there really are ghosts in the old house.

The introductory build-up and the climactic scenes are weakest, however, and this seems to be due to the writing and to Director Robert Wise's discretion. Considering the era in which this film was made, there is not much surprise in the tameness of these decisions. Wise is probably best known for West Side Story, although he also directed The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound Of Music, and The Sand Pebbles.

In spite of my grousing, The Haunting remains one of the best horror films ever made. Should you find yourself with a copy on some dreary afternoon, do not hesitate to draw the drapes, dim the lights, and immerse yourselfin a great little screamer.

Del Harvey, founder of FM, lives in Chicago. He is a survivor of The Directors Guild Of America, The Walt Disney Company, and Lucasfilm.

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