Monday Morning Movie Review: The Haunting (1963)

Last week I reviewed Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which prompted several readers to recommend the 1963 film adaptation, The Haunting.  I rented the flick on YouTube for about three bucks, and found it to be a mostly faithful adaptation of the book.

Indeed, beyond a few changes to some of the characters (Dr. Montague is now Dr. Markway, and his wife is not an insufferable Spiritualist but instead scoffs at the idea of ghosts) and the elimination of Arthur, the overbearing boys’ school headmaster, it does a great deal to enhance the book, a rare case where the movie, if not necessarily better than the book, is at least a worthy supplement to it.

Much of what makes The Haunting such an effective companion to Jackson’s novel is the portrayal of Eleanor “Nell” Lance, portrayed in all her nervous energy by Julie Harris.  Harris captures the anxious, emotionally fragile Nell to perfection, bring Jackson’s character to life on the silver screen.  Scenes from the book that sometimes did not quite make sense were explained perfectly through Harris’s portrayal, and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for the tortured protagonist.

The film also brings out more of the subtle romance of the story, but instead of it being Nell’s unrequited attraction to the roguish Luke, her affections are directed towards Dr. Markway.  In this regard, the film plays up Theodora’s extrasensory perception much more acutely than the novel (or, at least, more than I recall—while watching the film, I couldn’t be sure if some of the scenes with Theo’s ESP were scenes from the book that I was now recalling as I watched them, or if the film was putting that idea into my head).  She is clearly onto Nell’s attraction to Dr. Markway (of course, you don’t need telepathy to see it in this flick), and seems to understand Nell’s neediness.  The poisonous barbs she shoots at Eleanor are both more and less cruel than on the written page, as her body language sometimes tells a different story than her words.

Luke’s character seems to have the least to do in this adaptation.  He largely boozes it up, hits on Theo, and talks about making money off of Hill House.  He remains a skeptic about the strange events in the flick until the bitter end, when he realizes the place should be burned to the ground, “and the ground sowed with salt.”  That’s about the extent of his character arc, as many of his qualities get transferred in the film version to Dr. Markway.

The house itself is imposing—Gothic, as it should be, and terrifying.  The massive sculpture of Hugh Crain and his daughter (just one daughter in the film, not two) is creepy, and captures that spine-tingling uneasiness better than Jackson’s description in the novel (that’s not a knock against Jackson—some things are just better conveyed visually).  The book describes the house as being malevolent and having a face, and the flick definitely plays on that description.

Speaking of faces, ne of the most chilling scenes is when Eleanor is holding what she thinks is Theo’s hand in the midst of a haunted occurrence.  Sounds of laughing and talking—barely intelligible—are carrying on, along with the wailing of a child.  The camera keeps focusing on two little holes in the ornate, filigreed wall, the seeming locus of these terrifying sounds.  Eleanor grips tightly to the hand, and keeps telling herself that she will not allow harm to come to a child.  Finally, she musters the courage to shout at the voice, waking up Theo—who has been asleep on the opposite end of the room.  Eleanor screeches, “Whose hand have I been holding?”

It’s a terrific scene in the book, too, but here the spookiness is even more palpable.  We’ve all seen faces in the dark, or in the weird warp and woof of walls, popcorn ceilings, and the like.  I think that’s what gives the scene its power:  we can relate to seeing things in our own homes that may or may not be there.  The visual suggests that the house itself is talking to Eleanor, which the book and novel suggest on multiple occasions.

The ending matches the book for the most part, but the film implies that Eleanor does not wish to ram her car into the tree, while the novel is far more ambiguous, suggesting that only at the very last instant did Eleanor snap out of the house’s influence.  Here, it’s very clear that Eleanor does not want to ram into the tree, but some unseen force is controlling the wheel.  Naturally, the tree where she crashes and dies is the same one where the late Mrs. Crain met her unfortunate end in a carriage accident.

Being a Hollywood picture, the film ends with the surviving characters all explaining to the each other (and, thereby, the audience) what’s going on:  Eleanor is now one with Hill House, the house she never wanted to leave.

The Haunting is one of the best haunted house movies I’ve ever seen, and does the genre justice.  There are no jump scares or other cheap gimmicks to get an easy scream; it’s all a slow burning suspense that slowly builds and builds, just like Nell’s unhealthy attachment to the house.  Her descent into madness—perhaps euphoria?—is the scariest of all.

Still, I wouldn’t like hearing those voices coming from holes in my walls!  Gulp!


4 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: The Haunting (1963)

  1. Outstanding review!!! You’ve done us – and yourself! – proud with this one. We love this movie for all the reasons you’ve pointed out. There’s simply not another movie that does a haunted house so well.

    If I’m repeating myself, my apologies … reading this review I’m reminded of a ‘sleeper’ movie, Carnival of Souls, that is just plain creepy. The kind of creepy that stays with you long, long after watching it. It will often come up on folks’ Halloween blog posts for just that reason – no big scares but mega creepy. Shudder.

    Liked by 1 person

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