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Just Walk Away,
Renais: trial and tragedy in The Haunting (1962)

Have you ever seen this film? You'll know it if you have. Two women in Big Nighties huddling in a bedroom while something unseen prowls the passageways outside. That searing, pounding sound from something determined to get in. The inward-bending door and, worse than the bending door, the splintering of its timbers like needles in the ears. Lingering shots of blank windows, a gothic roofline against a filter-enhanced sky, blank eyes on icy-cool statuary. The scream of, “Whose hand was I holding?” as the lights come on.

If none of that means anything to you, then you really ought to add THE HAUNTING to your must-see list. Assuming that you care about the good stuff, that is. It's old and it's black-and-white and its devices are psychological rather than graphic, so gorehounds looking for slasher effects are bound to be disappointed. Unless they're prepared to pay attention, in which case they might come away with something they didn't bargain for.

It's the kind of anti-exploitation movie that exploitation movies steal from. I'm talking about the kind of films which throw open the doors that THE HAUNTING keeps closed, which manifest the threats that it leaves unstated, which roll out the monsters that it chooses never to show. This, they imagine, means they're going one better.

But as the 1999 clunker of a remake demonstrated, such literalism is the enemy of a good horror story. Anyone can gross you out with a bag of guts, and anyone can make you jump by shouting Boo! The real skill lies in whispering something in your ear that leaves you in such a state that you'll shit yourself when the dog barks.

THE HAUNTING was directed by CITIZEN KANE alumnus Robert Wise and scripted by Nelson Gidding from THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. Jackson wasn't a prolific author, but she made her shots count. The film follows its source with unusual closeness, and it's the rare thing that every novelist dreams of seeing raised from their work – a proper movie, yet true to the book. Its form is entirely cinematic, its incidents straight from the page. And the novel's driving, binding element – the yearning of poor, unfulfilled Eleanor Vance, played with big-eyed neurosis by professional wallflower Julie Harris, to find a place where she can belong – this is retained in all its intensity. Eleanor is a woman so desperate for a warm embrace that she'll ultimately elbow her way to the head of the line for a cold one, if the alternative would be to miss out altogether. The goings-on at Hill House mirror her interior world; often the phenomena vanish when the men walk in. THE HAUNTING is a film driven by her distress.

Headmasterly psychologist John Markway (Richard Johnson, never better) assembles a modest crew of volunteers to spend a series of nights observing (and perhaps provoking) the Hill House effect. Hill House has a prosaically miserable history. No devil worship, no Indian burial grounds, just a bitter chronicle of cold-heartedness that began with a carriage accident on the driveway and ended with a suicide in the library. Since then the house has stood empty, tended only by a couple who live offsite and prefer it that way.

Along with Eleanor there's Claire Bloom's sexually ambiguous Theodora, all dark velvet to Eleanor's tweed, and Russ ‘Tom Thumb‘ Tamblyn as Luke, wastrel nephew of the house's current owner. Luke is the least well-drawn of the four characters, monotonous in his flippancy, although he does get the film's great closing line about Hill House needing to be torn down and the ground sown with salt. Over the space of three nights the quartet bicker and bond and experience phenomena in which the uncertainty of perception plays a significant part. “Have you noticed,” says Markway, “how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away, and then you just catch something out of the corner of your eye?”

The ante is upped on the final evening by the arrival of Miss Moneypenny, whom the house promptly swallows. Which is to say that Markway's wife, sceptical to the point of scorn and played by Lois Maxwell, turns up and both crushes Eleanor's Markway-centred fantasies and seems to usurp her role as Hill House Easy Mark #1.

But the house is being cunning. In sending Eleanor away, Markway plays right into its hands. The crash that kills her – at the same spot on the driveway as that original carriage accident – turns her into a permanent houseguest. It's as if her soul is freeze-dried and stored at the moment of her greatest disappointment.

Despite its Massachusetts setting, THE HAUNTING was shot entirely in England. This causes no big problems except, perhaps, in a couple of early scenes, where the roads and houses of suburban Britain look as subtly wrong as they did in Kubrick's LOLITA, and where the appearance of Valentine Dyall as Hill House's grumpy gatekeeper sounds a strange, bum note. Where it gains most from the UK shoot is in the presence of its major, uncredited star – Ettington Park, the rambling Gothic house near to Stratford-upon-Avon which served as the main exterior location.

The Ettington Park image

While THE HAUNTING is a film whose effects all depend on subtleties, there's no denying that its subtleties are all right in your face. It's Guignol of the mind. It isn't high art, although it has much in common with Art House films that I've long admired. Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS also features a Strange Place that mines the unconscious of its visitors for phenomena to engage them with, its ultimate aim being to find the right candidate and absorb him forever; and Hill House's sense of dislocated reality finds echoes in the timeless, endless hotel of Alain Renais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, where the people in the formal garden cast shadows but the shrubbery doesn't. Ettington Park is now a luxury hotel hosting conferences and weddings – you have been warned.

High art it may not be, but THE HAUNTING is certainly high-end horror. And its sense of deeper themes and hidden structures, the way that its narrative is powered by loss and longing and not simple physical threat, convince me as much as anything that the whole high art/low culture dichotomy is a false one.

The worst fears are the ones you can't put a form to. THE HAUNTING dares to raise them and then, even more daringly, not to put a form to them.

Top that, if you can.