Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise had previously collaborated on the drama “I Want To Live!” and years later on the meditative adaptation of Michael Crichton's “The Andromeda Strain,” and as explained by both men in their contributions for the integrated commentary track – which includes actress Claire Bloom, and actors Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson - they sought out author Shirley Jackson for extra consultation to dissect the intricacies of her short story, “The Haunting of Hill House.”
Is it a story of a fragile woman experiencing a nervous breakdown, or a group of foolhardy mortals nestling themselves deep within the bowels of an animated nightmare? For several generations, this remained the scariest movie ever made, and those more familiar with the 1999 effects-laden remake should take a look at its predecessor. There's several story and character parallels among the two, but where director Jan De Bont lacked patience and restraint in the end, Robert Wise achieves far more chills through his carefully constructed shocks that reveal no onscreen evil, yet submerge viewers in the stark, claustrophobic world of the four isolated characters.
Wise was born with Panavision lenses instead of the usual spherical orbs of us filmgoers: each shot is so exceptionally composed, with actors often moving into a cleverly blocked positions that reinforce the watchful presence of possible ghosts, and reaffirm the mansion's claustrophobic rooms. Cinematographer Davis (David) Boulton had previously spent years as a noted still photographer, and his experience with black and white composition and limitless shading were used by Wise to great advantage. Warner Bros' DVD offers an excellent transfer, with clean blacks, sharp contrasts, and rich details for the beautiful art direction. Just as important is the film's original mono mix that achieves wonderful shocks with some harsh sound effects – several of which were played for the actors to evoke just the right reaction for the camera.
Luckily Wise was available to contribute to the commentary track: he dissects several of the film's trick shots, particularly the rickety staircase that's featured at key points, where the camera crawls upwards and careens downwards at frenetic speed without editing trickery. Screenwriter Gidding, who was brought to the project when Wise had found the right source material after directing the phenomenally successful musical “West Side Story” the year before, also describes his own search for the story's true meaning, the changes made to restrict the characters to one locale, and the lesbian subtext – also featured in the remake, and just as obvious in this version – which contributes to the precarious mental state of Julie Harris' already nerve-racked character and shapes her status as an outsider among the more stable colleagues.
Though Harris isn't present in the commentary track, both Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson describe the odd working relationship that evolved, with Harris similarly distancing herself from the cast and crew – a ploy that didn't endear the actress with her co-workers, but arguably aided her performance. Though each member adds a handful of production anecdotes, Richard Johnson really dominates the latter section of the track, with some pointed thoughts on delivering a subtle performance through one's physicality (and conversely, a dissection of the term N.A.R. – No Acting Required!).
Filmed for $1.1 million in England – the best price for the studio when the original $1.5 proved too high for the U.S. division – the film received a lukewarm reaction from critics, and while not a blockbuster, “The Haunting” has evolved into an undisputed genre classic, something that most of the commentators note with particular satisfaction, especially screenwriter Gidding.
The DVD includes a good collection of extras: the film's original theatrical trailer (2:31), with Johnson addressing the camera before a whirlwind montage of money shots; “Things That Go Bump In The Night” (erroneously titled “Great Ghost Stories” on the jacket), an essay and brief overview of key ghost films produced by Hollywood; and 2 Still Galleries - 50 extracts from Robert Wise's bound and heavily annotated script, and additional production and publicity stills (38), including the striking poster art, and absurd tie-ins (furniture! antiques!) that theatres should display in their lobbies, perhaps illustrating that the tactics of William Castle had finally made their way to higher profile studio campaigns.
A nice touch for the menus is a miniature version of Julie Harris' terror-stricken visage that forms the icon for each selection.
Note: This movie is best watched at home, on a really big TV, in a silent room, and way past your bedtime. (Mansion environment is optional.)
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan