Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) – Chilling Camerawork

Posted: October 21, 2009 by Rebecca in Horror Books, Horror Movies
Tags: , , ,

It’s October, the month that houses Halloween, and I decided it would be fitting to read a scary story in the weeks leading up to the 31st to put me in an eerie mood.  I’d never read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House before (if you haven’t, I recommend it), and as a rule I don’t normally go for ghost stories or movies (with the exception of a couple of films like The Others, Poltergeist, and The Innocents).  I tend to gravitate more toward the stuff I can see–slow moving, blood-drenched zombies, maniacal chainsaw-wielding oafs a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that sort of thing.

I read a little bit of The Haunting of Hill House every night, and every night, I went to bed with the covers over my head, ear perked,  listening to every creak and groan of my house (my house tends to be a bit noisy, and my boyfriend recently joked, “Your house is making bread”).  You could say the book got to me a bit.  Not terrifying enough so that it kept me awake all night, but enough that I was on high alert for anything that sounded amiss and my dreams had a spooky undertone.  I woke up at one point in the middle of the night, and I’d thrown all of my covers off me, and was lying there completely exposed.  I lept up quickly, straightened my comforter, and burrowed myself inside again like a coccoon.

Author Shirley Jackson is a master at the art of subtlety and slow-building suspense.  When I finished the book, I knew I’d have to see the movie–not the 1999 version with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Luke Wilson, and Lili Taylor, which I saw at the movies when it first came out.  That version left me feeling like I’d just wasted 113 minutes of my life.  The characters were terribly cast–can you see Luke Wilson in any role other than the ultimate bachelor in Wedding Crashers or costarring in a quirky Wes Andersen flick?  Neither could I.

Director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of the book does a wonderful job at conveying the subtle terror Shirley Jackson evokes in her novel.  The house in the movie is replete with creepy-looking, frozen, ivory statues, Mrs. Dudley the cook/servant sent chills down my spine when she repeatedly told the house guests in that detached, monotone voice of hers, “…there won’t be anyone around if you need help…we couldn’t even hear you, in the night…no one could…in the night, in the dark,” and something as simple and harmless as a winding staircase becomes ominous.

And then there’s Mr. Wise’s camerawork: when an unseen ghost pounds on the door to Nell and Theo’s room, the camera angle twists and turns along the framework of the door, giving the viewer a slight case of vertigo while simultaneously clueing the viewer in to how out of equilibrium Hill House really is.  According to Dr. Montague, every door and window angle is slightly off kilter, which causes the entirety of Hill House to be somewhat of a fun house….there are portions of the house that cannot even be seen by an outsider because all of those unequal angles result in one big, wharped monstrosity.

The actors were well-chosen for the movie, and my favorite was Russ Tamblyn who played Luke.  Does he look familiar?  You might recognize him as the leader of the Jets in West Side Story.  I thought I was going to have a hard time shaking the thought of him dancing and pirouetting like he does throughout West Side Story, but he makes a good liquor-swigging, would-be inheritor of Hill House.

What I didn’t like about The Haunting?  Screenplay writer Nelson Gidding changes parts of the story when he just doesn’t have to.  Shirley Jackson put together a great story, and Nelson Gidding changes it for reasons I can’t make out.  In the story, there are two sisters, in the movie there is only one.  In the story, Mrs. Montague is an annoying, overbearing woman who comes to stay at Hill House of her own volition and loves a good scare, in the movie she hates ghosts, is timid, and only comes to Hill House to persuade her doctor-husband to leave with her.  I could go on and on about all of the differences between the movie and the book.  I’m an avid bookworm, and I never understand why film adapters seek to change a perfectly plotted story.  All that aside, I enjoyed The Haunting and I think it succeeded in its creep factor.

That night, I slept with my head under the covers and my ears perked once again!

~Rebecca

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