Writer: Nelson Gidding from the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Cast: Richard Johnson, Julie Harris, Ronald Adams, Claire Bloom, Lois Maxwell, Russ Tamblyn
Plot: Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) and a team of paranormal investigators win the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Hill House, an old manor with a history of tragic deaths amongst its inhabitants. One of them, Eleanor “Nell” Lance, goes behind the back of her overbearing sister to gain access to the car she helped pay for in order to make the trip. Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) is the nephew of the owner of the house, sent along to gain an appreciation for the property he hopes to inherit one day. She befriends a fellow investigator named Theodora (Claire Bloom), whose interest in Nell seems more than academic. As the house begins to “greet” them in its own way, Nell starts to feel a certain attraction to the house, despite its terrors. The spirits seem to be summoning her, even calling to her, taking advantage of a woman who has no real direction in her life following the death of her invalid mother. Luke, meanwhile, is interested in the house only as a moneymaking scheme – what parts he can sell, what parts he can renovate, even to the point of planning to use the spiral staircase scene of a famous suicide as a nightclub.
Nell finds herself attracted to Markway, only to be devastated when his skeptic wife (Lois Maxwell) arrives and insists on joining the hunt. Nell suggests she sleep in the nursery – the sealed-off and most mysterious room in the house – but immediately regrets it. The locked room opens by itself, though, and Mrs. Markway decides to stay. After the rest of the group finds itself cornered in the parlor, loud noises and bulging walls coming in upon them, they find Mrs. Markway missing. As the others begin to tear apart the house searching, Nell (who now believes herself destined to be a part of this house) begins to roam the mansion, joyfully seeking out the spirits, finally finding herself at the wobbly, unstable staircase, climbing to the top. Markway coaxes her down, but Mrs. Markway leaps out and terrifies her, causing her to faint. Markway declares an end to the experiment and orders them all home, but Nell tells them she has no home, refusing to return to her sister and begging to stay at the house. She drives for the gate, losing control of the car and seeing a white figure leap in front of her just before she strikes a tree, killing her. The white figure turns out to be Mrs. Markway, who got lost in the massive, confusing house. Markway reveals the tree Eleanor struck was the same one where the house’s first victim died in an “accident.” He returns to the house to collect their things knowing he’ll be safe. The house has want it wants… for now.
Thoughts: From the very beginning, it’s interesting to note how different filmmaking and storytelling is today compared to 1963, when the movie was made. The film begins with Markway narrating an extended flashback sequence, detailing the history of the house and the gruesome deaths of those who have been associated with it. All this before we know who Markway is or what his association with the house actually is. A modern film is far more likely to begin with Markway begging for permission to go to the house, with the backstory being uncovered later. It’s debatable which approach is better, but since this is my little project I’ll tell you: it’s the latter one. Kicking things off with a infodump – scary as it is – takes some of the momentum out of the film from the very beginning.
The events that happen inside the house are exactly what you come to expect in Haunted House stories – odd noises, doors that close themselves, doors that open thanks to convenient gusts of wind, cold spots, and strange writing that appears on the wall (specifically “Help Eleanor come home,” a message that scares poor Nell half to death.) We deal with exceedingly creepy statues, the skeptics who try to debunk the supernatural nature of the house, the caretakers who refuse to stay in the house at night and so forth. Theo seems unnaturally perceptive about Nell, making offhanded comments about her and her life that border on the telepathic. Nell’s sensitivity to the ghosts of the house also mark her. Characters in these stories with special gifts or powers has become another trademark of the genre.
You know all of these tropes because every haunted house story uses them, but all the others were really mimicking this original. Basically, if you’ll excuse the pun, this story is the blueprint from which all other haunted house stories are built. It’s one of those stories that has been redone – in whole or in part – over and over again over the years to the point where the original almost seems derivative, even though it’s exactly the opposite. Not to say that all of these elements were 100 percent original even when Shirley Jackson wrote the novel in 1959, but her novel and this movie pulled them all together and fused them into a genre in a way that no other film had.
Interestingly, this is one of those movies where it’s what you don’t see that’s most effective. There’s no blood in the film (although I understand there’s one scene in the novel with a message written in blood which the filmmakers excised), and although you see the evidence of the spirits, you never see the spirits themselves. Even the “ghost” that startles Nell at the end turns out to be the very living, very confused Grace Markway.
In one bit of infodump that actually works, Markway takes some time to explain to the ladies why the house is so confusing – it’s constructed specifically to be that way. The doors are off-center, none of the angles are at 90 degrees, and the entire structure is built in such a way to make it nearly impossible to find your way around. Watching the film, it’s a credit to the set designers that you really do get that sense. It’s hard to tell for sure, watching only those elements the director wants us to see from the angles he wants us to see them, but the house looks incredibly confusing. There are so many doors that anybody could get confused quickly, the mirrors are all hanging at strange angles that give you peeks into obscure corners of a room that you wouldn’t expect to see in normal circumstances. Purely from a visual standpoint, the director has more than succeeded in making the house look bizarre as hell, and it’s very easy to imagine yourself getting lost in its halls.
Some of the simplest scares work the best. While the entire cast is assembled in the parlor, tremendous rumbling noises elsewhere begin to torment them. It gets worse when the doorknob begins to rattle (easily accomplished by a crew member tinkering with it slowly from the other side), then the door itself begins to bulge inward impossibly, stretching like rubber instead of wood. It’s a very simple effect, but far more effective than the expensive CGI version of the effect we saw in the 1999 remake of the film.
The ending is suitably bleak for a haunted house film, no happy ending and no real chance at redemption for the house or for the sad, broken characters. It’s not a bad film, but not nearly as good as some of the other films we’ve discussed recently. (It’s not much of a follow-up to Psycho, for instance.) Still, I think it’s notable in and of itself. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a good movie, and it leaves a cinematic footprint that is clear, vivid, and continues even today.
Next is Audrey Hepburn in a classic chiller, Wait Until Dark.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.