The Haunting* (Robert Wise, 1963) Robert Wise, who directed The Haunting is a supreme craftsman of film. he was formerly a film editor, one of the men who pasted Citizen Kane together, in fact, and thus knows how to compose his shots to make interesting stretches of film. He knows how to manipulate an audience, how to shock, how to fool. He can direct your attention to what he wants you to see. He is also quite adept at using special effects, thus he can pull off such projects as The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain, and The Haunting. However, when it came to characterization, Wise usually falls flat on his face,** as was evident in West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Two People. So, what you have in Robert Wise is the perfect disaster-movie director, and he fulfilled that label when he directed The Hindenburg last year. I can guarantee that your spine will be pleasantly chilled by The Haunting.
Unlike Rosemary's Baby, The Haunting does take place in odd, creepy surroundings--The Olde Hill House--and you have such things as a creaky metal circular stairway, convenient for a suicide, whispering corridors. Take a brooding mansion, some brutal situations, and some brutish ghosts and one quakingly susceptible person and you have the formula for this type of gothic. Whether its successful or not depends on whether the director can stir them up to make them a) original, which is unlikely, or b) scary, which you can do in a myriad number of ways, cinematically. Although The Haunting is not really the former, it is certainly the latter, so you might want to take a spare hand along Saturday night to clutch.
Maybe not. You see, there's a situation where....well, I'm not going to give it away. Find out for yourself, and...sleep well Saturday night.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on October 22 and 23rd, 1976.
My criticism of Wise's ability with actors is unfair and untrue. He tended to cast talented actors when he could, and The Haunting is full of them--Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, and Julie Harris, along with Russ Tamblyn (from West Side Story) and Lois Maxwell. The Haunting still holds up as a chilling film, and it's because of the way Wise (and scenarist Nelson Gidding) set the movie up with a prologue outlining the sad history of the elegant but dreerily off-kilter chiaroscuro of "Hill House," lovingly photographed with an eye towards the odd angle and moving attention to the side of the frame. The one section I still recall vividly is the long camera lift going up the circular stairs preceding a suicide victim's climb, then their feet dropping into frame, and Wise then double-timing back down those stairs. It just creeps you out and prepares you for further shocks in other rooms.
Wise shoots in widescreen black-and-white, all the better to photograph shadows in, and cranks up the sound design of the creaks, moans, whispers and poundings reverberating down the corridors. Wise wracks nerves expertly, and manipulates the audience, pushing the cliched tropes of The Old Dark House as far as they can go, while also suggesting horrors, rather than throwing them in your face (as is the current para-norm). The planning and execution make one ill at ease, as if the way the film is shot suggests that the very milieu of the movie is haunted and not normal. Plus, Wise (originally an editor) is the master of the shock-cut, both the set-up and the splice. Wise could do anything, in any genre, and was one of the great craftsmen of the American cinema.
** Oh, I don't know. West Side Story boasts a lot of fine performances--it's Richard Beymer's Tony that's the exception. And while Christopher Plummer is at his most...restrained in The Sound of Music, everyone else is fine. The quartet of researchers in The Andromeda Strain are more full developed than Michael Crichton's original characters, and one can't forget Paul Newman's work as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, and Mako in The Sand Pebbles, Susan Hayward in I Want To Live, and William Shatner in Star Trek: The Motion Picture... Whoops, killed that argument!