The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.
It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.
I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.
The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.