The Haunting: 1963

Yes. I think this movie stands as the best modern ghost story ever adapted to celluloid. Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, it is a skillful piece of filmmaking, tracing the contours of repressed sexual energy at a time when film codes still held major film studios hostage. Issues such as the attraction of one woman to another could not be addressed directly in these narratives, so all of these dynamics had to be conveyed through other means. When you use this indirect technique, it requires very sophisticated actors capable of communicating multiple meanings through a single line or gesture. This film begins with the high-strung Eleanor (Julie Harris) fleeing from her family household where she has been mocked and tormented. Her flight is prompted by the death of her mother, who she was forced to care for during a prolonged illness. Because she has a history of intense paranormal occurrences around her person, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) has invited her to partake in an experiment in a remote estate. There she is joined by a chic, worldly psychic named Theodora (Claire Bloom). They are also accompanied estate’s soon-to-be owner, Luke (Russ Tamblyn). The entire cast is amazing, but Claire and Harris are particularly good and comprise a unique chemistry rarely captured on film. If you have never heard of either of these actors, you are in for a treat with this one. Harris would go on to be better known for her work on stage. She simply seethes with needy edginess, a performance perhaps augmented by her own depression and friction with her co-performers. Bloom is up to the challenge with an Aubrey Hepburn sort of presence and a clipped, precise manner. She is also a much heralded stage actor who gravitated toward film roles that required both sophistication and class.

Again the set is a performer in its own right. The movie was shot at the Ettington Park Hotel in the UK. The location is absolutely stunning, both expansive and claustrophobic. If you are in to gothic horror, you will love this place. Director Robert Wise does the honors, using all of his abilities to manipulate the cinematic environment to produce psychological effects. The film uses warped lenses, dolly shots, wide angle close-ups, and sound to convey a sense of dread. Do not expect any headless corpses or skeletons in this one. The film has a bit of a Hitchcock feel, but is infinitely more subtle. And just to be clear, if this movie was never made, you would have no Sam Ramie.

As suggested the film’s internal dynamic revolves around repressed sexual energy. For those unfamiliar with Hollywood at this time, all major studios were required to avoid certain themes, most importantly circumventing any reference to gay characters. There were movies at the time exploring these themes from the exploitation angle, but these were small distributors cashing in on shock cinema. The Haunting was a product of MGM and thus had to follow its own self-imposed rules. The central dynamic within the text revolves around Theo’s sexual interest in the sheltered, but explosive Eleanor. The haunted Eleanor is ambivalent toward Theo, seeking the attentions of the fatherly, unavailable Dr. Markway. Claire Bloom simply kills her role, at times stalking and others comforting the repressed Eleanor. Given that Theo is psychic, one might assume that she senses a kindred spirit in Eleanor, but struggles to draw her into the open. The dynamic produced by these two actors is simply unique. This is a type of filmmaking one does not see anymore (and that’s a good thing because it signals a higher degree of acceptance regarding the spectrum of human sexuality). But by clamping down on this energy in films of this period, the results can often be revealing. For example, the two actors were forbidden by the studio to touch. But they do. A code develops between the two women as they look for ways to express that which is considered so taboo by the repressive film restrictions. There are lessons in that dance between the said and the unsaid. How does one convey one’s presence in a world that finds your very existence taboo?

Oh, and then there’s the ghost… Right. I almost forgot about that. Well, what are ghosts but simply projections of repressed sexual energy? When one goes to war with one’s own body, the results are not likely to be good. And so the film slithers toward its final, dark conclusion. It is a fitting ending for an SNBC offering. Keep it mellow and turn down the lights. Let the candle glint off the bong. This one does not disappoint.

Rating: 5 Hits