Karl Wareham has reviewed the recent Warner DVD release of The Haunting, a horror classic from 1963 that is finally presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio.
The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and concerns a Dr John Markway who is an anthropologist and psychic explorer who has hired Hill House to perform ‘experiments in the supernatural’. To assist him in this, he enlists the help of others, Eleanor, Theo and Luke. Eleanor and Theo both have links to the supernatural, and Luke is there as the resident skeptic and future inheritor of the house.
It’s something of a testament to the strength of the original novel that the film still works so well. It is, at heart a simple and unassuming horror story about a group of people meddling with forces that they do not understand. It’s also testament to Robert Wise’s handling of the story; he ignores the camp excesses that might have ruined the story and simply shoots a good story well. It’s easy to say, but difficult to do. Just take a look at the appalling remake that Hollywood offered us for proof of this.
The root of the story concerns Eleanor, and her relationship with the house. Eleanor is the only character that we are allowed access too. We hear here thoughts and hear about her background; this gives us an insight into her psyche that we do not get with the others. Professor Markkways’ voice opens the film, and, the film and house belong to him, but gradually, over the course of the film this point of view gives way to that of Eleanor’s. It’s a disturbing journey, then, for the viewer that suddenly the authorative narrative heart of the film relapses into the, sometimes deranged, thoughts of Eleanor. It’s a brave technique, and one that works well.
As the film progresses, we see Eleanor slip further and further into her psychosis and her relationship with the house grows into something quite sinister. The Haunting is a film that has little concern for the viewers safety, as it were, and enjoys toying with them. The narrative technique, the voiceover change, works well and when coupled with the techniques of the director, make the film an unnerving experience even by today’s standards.
The photography and direction in the film is superb. From the opening shots, which depict the house in silhouette, to the closing shot, the camera is constantly seeking out ways to jolt the viewer. The fluid camerawork ensures that the house becomes the star of the film; there are countless close ups of parts of the house, dislocating it in time and space and often the viewer is not sure what is being depicted. This all adds to the sense of unease. Wise, on the commentary tells of his deliberate shooting with a lens that gave slightly too wide view and gave everything a twisted look. And the B&W photography is superb, showing shadow and depth and much of the horror is merely imagined.
The Haunting is a film which deserves the status of horror classic. If you are incapable of suspension of belief however, steer well clear, (the acting is sometimes stagey and there’s no blood) but then, the words B&W would have scared you off anyway. The rest of us can wait until the night becomes really dark, the house really empty and quiet; then we’ll turn off the lights and enjoy being scared in a way that modern films really can’t do as well.
An anamorphic transfer that shows a fair amount of grain throughout. The level of detail and contrast is high but there is some print damage throughout. It’s disappointing, given its reputation that it has not been given a full remastering. The sound is plain mono, but clear and perfectly adequate. If you’re looking for a demo disc, though, this is not it. On the plus side, though, its a joy just to see it in it’s original wide ratio and if you’ve only ever seen a P&S version or the cropped version that sometimes shows up on TV, well, its a cliché, but you haven’t really seen it.
No subtitles on the extras.
Not too much, really. There’s a Stills Gallery which is interesting mainly for its collection of early promotional material from the films release. Better, is the Original Trailer which, of course, contains spoilers but is a great trailer from a great film era.
Best of the slim bunch is, unsurprisingly, the Commentary which features the director and much of the cast. Interesting and informative, it’s slightly disappointing they are not altogether, rather, each separate commentary has been spliced together, but despite this, it’s one of the better ones. It gives real insights into the conditions of filming and Wise gives much away that many modern filmmakers would do well to steal.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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