THE HAUNTING (1963)

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I saw Robert Wise’s The Haunting at the age of 13, when it came out, and it scared the bejesus out of me. I just watched it again on Blu-ray over 50 years later and it still creeped me out considerably.

It may be the best of the “old dark house” thrillers, because it doesn’t make the mistake of explaining the house’s malevolence rationally and it rarely shows anything shocking. It depends on creating an atmosphere of dread rooted in the psychological make-up of the characters but also literally invested in the house itself.

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The old dark house genre works on its deepest level by combining the idea of the intrinsic coziness of a house — establishing it as a kind of refuge, from a storm, from problems the characters have elsewhere, which is what a house is supposed to be — with the idea of a house as a trap, a prison, which a house can become, psychologically speaking.

Wise sets up and sustains this dynamic expertly, keeping the supernatural terrors of the house always off screen, suggested by lighting, by sound effects, and by a few simple tricks, like having a massive wooden door bulge inward, as though from the effort of a monstrous unseen presence trying to enter the room.

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Wise learned this approach to horror from the producer Val Lewton, who in the 1940s at RKO specialized in a kind of horror film in which atmosphere rather than shock carried the weight of the thrills and chills. Lewton gave Wise his first shot as a director on such films as this.

What Wise learned from Lewton, and his tasteful, intelligent execution of those lessons here, has kept The Haunting from dating — it remains a fine spooky entertainment for a dark and stormy night.

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6 thoughts on “THE HAUNTING (1963)

  1. Lloyd,

    A man after my own heart! The Haunting was and is one of my favorite horror films. I didn’t see it until I was 18 and it was on a grainy TV but the sound was good and that is an aspect of this film which generates more fear than the visuals – the pounding!! I have owned the VHS then the DVD and now the Blue Ray version hooked up to surround sound. Couple of months ago we entertained a couple who had never seen it at our house for dinner and a movie. What a great night, they loved it!

    I had a chance to meet Julie Harris many years later on the lot of 20th Century Fox and expressed my sincere appreciation for all of her work hoping she would be led to inquire if I had a particular favorite performance perhaps testing my knowledge. When I mentioned The Haunting a wonderful and knowing smile appeared on her face along with a warm handshake and thank you. I have not washed that hand since.

  2. My first encounter with raw terror was “The House on Haunted Hill,” a typically silly Vincent Price film. It was released in 1959 and probably came to New Orleans shortly after that, so I must have been nine when I wheedled my parents into taking me. I had never dreamed that anything could be so frightening.

    • I think “The Exorcist” scared me more than any other movie has. It would be interesting to revisit it and see if it still has the power to creep me out.

  3. I was 14 when I saw this movie. It remains my high water mark for horror to this day. Mr. Benson is correct. The pounding was chilling.
    I come from that haunted country where the film was set, New England. The next town to Salem, in fact. Mr. Wise understood the menace of those looming arks that pockmark the landscape. The house resembled nothing less than “Danvers” our notorious local insane asylum, which made a cameo in 1958’s Home Before Dark, and took center stage in 2001’s Session 9.

    • I was really delighted that the movie held up so well for me after so many years — it can get under your skin at any age.

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