Friday, July 22, 2016

Walk Alone With Claire Bloom, or Thoughts on The Haunting

The Haunting (1963), based on the brilliant novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, (you remember her from high school, she wrote The Lottery) and Directed by Hollywood Legend Robert Wise, is a tense and harrowing portrait of insanity wrapped around a ghost story.  The premise is familiar; parapsychologist Dr. Markway as played by Richard Johnson investigates a haunted house, along with the nephew of the house’s owner Luke Sanderson, as played by Russ Tamblyn.  You know Russ Tamblyn from Twin Peaks, West Side Story (1961) and an IMDb page that spans almost 70 years.
Dr. Markway is also joined by two psychics, Nell as played by Julie Harris, living a lonely and unhappy life of quiet desperation and Claire Bloom as Theodora, the opposite of Nell, glamorous, confident, and also a subversively flirty lesbian mid-century character.  She’s on your gaydar if you look for it, but the signs are subtle enough to get past the censors and social mores of the time.
Dr. Markway provides the exposition, Luke acts as the skeptic, and Nell narrates in a nervous and insecure voiceover.  We as an audience are made to both sympathize and share in Nell’s experiences, and as she is sensitive to the paranormal we are right beside her as she is tormented by the external ghosts and internal demons.  In fact, the whole movie can be interpreted as a slow descent into madness, though author Shirley Jackson has maintained that she wrote a supernatural novel.
The Haunting (1963) remains a very accurate adaptation of a written work, with dialogue lifted directly from the novel, with a surprisingly effective use of sound, lighting and acting to create dread and fear.  The house itself is dark and oppressive, and the black and white film highlights the long shadows and dark hallways.  Reminiscent of The Innocents (1961), The Turn of The Screw (2009), and The Others (2001), it is an effective ghost story that relies on mood, direction and first class acting to build dread and in the end, an overwhelming sadness that stays with the audience long after viewing.
If you haven’t heard of Robert Wise, you’ve certainly heard of his movies: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), Audrey Rose (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).   Even before he started directing he edited Citizen Kane (1941). 
There was of course the inevitable 1999 remake by Speed (1994) director Jan de Bont, which I re-watched for this blog because I’m a completionist and I care my readers.  The movie had perfect casting, at least on paper, with Owen Wilson as Luke, Lily Taylor as Nell, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theodora and Liam Neeson as Dr. Markway (now Dr. Marrow, for no discernable explanation). 
Dr. Marrow is conducting a fear experiment with insomnia patients, and the production design, music and visual effects are all turned up to 11.  In fact every aspect of the remake is bigger and louder except for the acting by that perfect cast, which struggles under the weight of all that overblown CGI.  In true ‘90s fashion Hollywood took a quiet, intellectual ghost story and tried to rebrand it as a supernatural action movie akin to The Mummy (1999).  The movie was a summer hit, and currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 17%.  The 1963 version, in case you’re wondering and I know you are, and currently holds a rating of 89%. 

my first novel? thanks for asking:)  it’s a the first book in a 4 volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, and a 24-hr diner with the best pie in town…