The Haunting (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding, Shirley Jackson
Stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson
Run Time: 1 Hour, 52 Minutes
“Hill House had stood for 90 years, and might still stand for 90 more,” says the narrator. Credits roll. Afterward, he tells more of the history of the scary old house. “It was an evil house form the beginning. A house that was born bad.” Hugh Crain’s wife was killed, and he raised his young daughter alone. He later remarried, and the second wife fell down the stairs and died.” Hugh then went to England and died there. Young Abigail grew up and grew old in Hill House. She hired a young companion to care for her, but the companion was making out with a farm hand when she died. Abigail is said to haunt the house still. The companion eventually hanged herself.
Dr, Markway is the narrator, and he wants to rent Hill House to do a paranormal investigation in the house. He arranges to go to the place from Ms. Sanderson, the current owner of the house. Ms. Sanderson doesn’t like the idea of Dr. Markway staying in the house with female assistants, so she insists that her nephew Luke go and stay with them.
Eleanor has been invited to the house, but her family doesn’t want her to go. Her sister seems to be her “keeper” or something. She doesn’t seem terribly stable. She really has to put up a fight just to take her own car out. She thinks this is where she’s been wanting to go all her life. The family has no idea where she’s gone since she basically stole her own car. She very much lives in her own mind.
Dudley the caretake is rude to her, but he finally lets her in. She sets eyes on the house and thinks it’s staring back at her. She senses the house’s evil intent, and that it is patient and waiting. Mrs. Dudley lets her in and explains about mealtimes; she clearly points out that she doesn’t stay there after dark.
She meets Theodora, another guest. She gets a scare, but it’s only Dr. Markway. All the doors are slightly off-kilter and tend to close by themselves. They find the dining room and meet Luke Sanderson, who’s already drinking. The other specialists dropped out, so these four are the only ones coming. He’s already planning to sell the place when he finally inherits it. Markway explains that Theo has ESP and Nell has experience poltergeists in her childhood, but she’s in denial. Markway thinks the house has become… deranged.
Eleanor has a continuous inner monologue going on, where she tells herself she belongs there and this is the place she is meant to be. Theo seems to know everything about Nell, even that she wants to have her hair style changed. She reads Nell’s mind easily.
Nell goes to bed, but she hears knocking in the middle of the night. She hears Theo screaming, and they look for the unidentifiable sound in the freezing cold room. There’s definitely something right outside the room pounding on the walls.
The next morning, Markway has a million personal questions for Eleanor, and she tells him all about her past. We hear about his back story as well; basically, he simply wants to prove that ghosts exist. Luke comes in a tells them about chalk writing on the hallway wall. “Help Eleanor come home,” is scrawled on the wall. Theo says maybe the house likes her best, or maybe she wrote it herself.
They find a statue of the original Crain family, and one of the statues, the companion, looks a lot like Nell. Eleanor has issues with the house, and it does things to her when she stops paying attention. Eleanor and Theo move into the same bedroom to avoid any weirdness like last night. Eleanor tells Theo she wants to stay at Hill House forever.
Markway finds a cold spot in the hallway, and he calls it the “heart” of the house. Their breaths fog up when they stand in the right place. Nell has a night visitor as she sleeps, or maybe it was just her own dream? Markway thinks they are really close to observing something undeniably real, but Eleanor is already convinced. She explains that she was tired and let her mother die; she didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. Theo knows too much, and it starts getting on Nell’s nerves.
A car pulls up, and it’s Grace, Markway’s wife. The newspapers have found out about this study, and if it gets out, he’ll be a laughing stock. She doesn’t take any of this seriously at all and mocks Markway. Not only that, but she wants to sleep in the nursery, which all of a sudden has become unlocked and open.
They all sleep downstairs in the parlor except for Grace, who’s still in the nursery. This time, they all hear the pounding on the walls. The door bends inward like it was rubber. Things get hectic, and Nell decides to give herself to the ghost if it wants her. They all go up to the nursery, but Grace has disappeared.
Eleanor goes into the library and up the strange, wobbly old spiral staircase. “I am home,” she repeats several times. Markway finds her and chases up after her. They bring her back down, but then they insist that she leave and go somewhere safe. She insists that the house wants her, and no one else. She takes the car and speeds away, but the house doesn’t want her to go. Eventually, she runs into a tree and is killed. It was the same tree that killed the original Mrs. Crain many years ago. Almost immediately, Grace turns up, wandering around the grounds.
Theo explains that now the house belongs to Nell. She got what she wanted. The house has what it wants. Markway goes back to the house and locks everything up so nothing like this happens again.
I can’t think of another movie that has so much inner dialogue. Nell constantly thinks things to herself, and we hear all of it. She’s unstable for sure, and maybe a little insane, but that’s what makes her interesting. This is about as “psychological horror” as a movie can be. There are only four real main characters here, and we get to know them all, which is good. We know what they want, why they have come, and what they do.
Early on, Markway explains that Nell had had a previous encounter with a poltergeist, which she denies, but this never goes anywhere, nor is it even brought up again.
It’s long, but the pacing is good, and it’s not even slightly boring. The ghostly activity is pretty minimal, and you never see anything, but it’s a good ghost story.