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Long held as one of the greatest haunted house stories ever, Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is a masterpiece of mood, a subtle examination of the very nature of fear that relies more on unsettling impressions than outright scares. It’s a treatise, in a way, on the manner in which all humans are, to a greater or lesser extent, “haunted” by their own pasts, powerless to resist the myriad phantoms and specters of the mind. It’s a book in which the suffocating atmosphere of fear is strong. even if very little appears to actually happen before our eyes…as the best writers and filmmakers have always known, what takes place in our minds is infinitely more terrifying than anything physical we can be shown. When given the option, our imaginations will always find new and unique ways to put the screws to us.

Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) stands as the first and, arguably, best adaptation of Jackson’s book, standing head and shoulders above the far sillier CGI extravaganza that was Jan de Bont’s 1999 version. As befits the source material, Wise’s film is a subtle, low-key affair that relies heavily on sound design and an outstandingly creepy location to make its point: despite featuring a number of highly effective setpieces, The Haunting is anything but a typical thrill ride. Despite possessing a surplus of atmosphere, however, Wise’s version of the material is almost sunk by an unnecessary, constant and rather irritating voice-over narration, courtesy of lead and focal point Julie Harris: her take on Eleanor is often more of a chore than a blessing, leaving the rest of the cast and atmosphere to do all the heavy lifting. Due to this issue, Wise’s version of The Haunting ends up being sporadically entertaining, a film that I can honestly say I respect more than actually like.

Hewing close to the source material, Wise’s film begins with a short discussion of the origins of Hill House, which features the frankly awesome proclamation that “whatever walked at Hill House walked alone.” We’re then introduced to our industrious cast: the kindly, inquisitive Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), who heads up the paranormal investigation into Hill House; Eleanor (Julie Harris), the ridiculously high-strung member of Markway’s group who once experienced poltergeist activity; Theodora (Claire Bloom), the relentlessly nasty ESP expert who bullies Eleanor as if her life depended on it and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), nephew to the house’s elderly owner and along as a representative, of sorts.

Once the crew of ghost-hunters get to Hill House, things begin to proceed in ways that should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever read or seen anything relating to haunted houses: things seem to move out of the corner of one’s eye, strange noises abound and the house is full of inexplicable cold spots. These subtle moments end up being the film’s greatest asset: Wise is able to wring maximum impact out of scenes that feature nothing so much as an incessant banging, similar to how Paranormal Activity (2007) gets so much mileage out of opening doors and slamming cupboards. As the group continues to investigate the phenomena, it becomes abundantly clear that much of the spectral activity seems to center around Eleanor: her agitated state of mind and extreme neurosis appears to be giving the house and its “inhabitants” a nice little jolt of pure paranormal power. When Dr. Markway’s disapproving wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell) shows up at the house, uninvited, she inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will ultimately prove the old adage “There are some places people just shouldn’t poke around in.”

For the most part, The Haunting is an extremely well-made, subtle and effective film. Wise, a Hollywood veteran of such iconic films as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Sound of Music (1965) and West Side Story (1961), is an assured hand behind the scenes, keeping the tension high and the atmosphere thick. The house, itself, is a fantastically creepy affair: the actual haunted house is one of the most crucial aspects of any haunted house story and Wise’s depiction of Hill House is a real showstopper. The film also features several nicely realized setpieces, including the iconic scene where Eleanor thinks that Theo is holding her hand when, in fact, the other woman is actually all the way across the room: who, then, was holding Eleanor’s hand? It’s a truly great, scary moment, the kind of intelligent fright that we just don’t get enough of in modern horror films.

With so many things in its favor, then, why do I find myself so lukewarm regarding The Haunting? I’ve always had an affinity for subtle, “old-fashioned” horror films and haunted house stories are some of my all-time favorites (Shirley Jackson’s original novel was a staple in my childhood reading list). Due to these factors, The Haunted should be one massive home-run from start to finish. The main issue with the film, unfortunately, becomes Eleanor’s highly unnecessary voice-over narration. Harris’ portrayal of Eleanor is already a bit problematic, since she approaches it in the same way that Nicholson approached his version of Jack Torrance: she already seems unhinged when the film begins, leaving precious little breathing space before she’s full-on bat-shit nuts. On top of this, Wise pours on some thoroughly unnecessary voice-overs that find Eleanor waxing mundane about any number of subjects: there are times when her voice-overs approach the likes of “I think I’ll walk over here and see what’s going on before I walk over there and see what’s going on,” which becomes especially torturous when repeated ad nauseam.

I can’t recall how many times I was wrapped-up in the film only to have one of Eleanor’s stupid voice-overs haul me kicking and screaming back into reality. When a film’s entire impact is derived from its atmosphere, any attempt to wreck that mood is not only questionable but completely mind-boggling. To make matters even worse, the character of Eleanor becomes almost the entire focus of Wise’s film: getting stuck with an unlikable character is one thing…getting stuck with an unlikable protagonist for the entirety of a film is a whole other ball of wax, entirely.

Ultimately, I wanted to like The Haunting much more than I actually did. The atmosphere and mood are nicely realized, the location is great and the reliance on subtle chills versus overt shocks is always appreciated. Despite these pluses, however, I found myself constantly irritated by Harris’ performance (although, to be fair, I also found Claire Bloom’s Theo to be a thoroughly ridiculous character, such an unrepentant bully as to be one “Ha ha” away from a Nelson Muntz) and the unnecessary use of voice-over narration to spoon-feed information in the most obvious of ways. While I can state, unequivocally,  that Wise’s version is miles above de Bont’s, I can’t help but hope to one day see a version that gives Jackson’s source material the respect it deserves. As it stands, however, The Haunting is a decent, if flawed effort, full of rich atmosphere but nearly scuttled by a tedious lead performance that makes the film a bit of a chore to get through.