Perhaps its a bit unfortunate, calling myself a horror fan, to say that I have finally watched the original Haunting. Robert Wise's film based on Shirley Jackson's suspenseful novel is a fairly seminal work; as haunted house films go, this one has all the stuff that goes bump in the night plus a little bit more, with a gritty reality to deaths and a reliance on subtle scares rather than explicit ghostly phenomenon.
Wise's direction is molded well from Jackson's original story; what's retained is the emphasis on internal, psychological thrills rather than any observable activity from apparitions. Wise creates camera angles that mimic Hill House's supposedly off-kilter architecture; scenes are shot with disorientation in mind, especially a very confusing, slightly sickening ascent of a spiral staircase. There's also the matter of showing death that Wise skirts around - instead of shocking the audience with a dead body, the camera gives only a inclination of the grisly remains of the body. Most notable is a fantastic and grotesque depiction of a hanging early on in the film, where the camera catches only the dropping lower half of the suicidal woman.
Julie Harris works as Eleanor, hitting on all of the self-conscious qualities that Jackson pens in the book. This is almost done a little too well - using voice-overs to expel her thoughts, Eleanor is quite possibly one of the most annoying main characters, because her weaknesses are too great to number. She has no personality; she is a waif, a plain Jane; and rarely does she ever channel her inner energies into something greater than wishing for something better in life. It's easy to dislike her, which is why Harris gets so much praise from me for her performance; it's the way her character was written. And yet, when Eleanor does explode a few times at those taunting her, like the mysteriously sexy Theo (Claire Bloom), it's a welcome juxtaposition of Eleanor's abilities when she's pushed to the edge. As Eleanor progresses from total dependence to ferocious dissent among her friends, Harris treats the audience to some strong performances.
Still, it's the tedium of how little happens in Hill House that drives the viewer onward. At first, The Haunting feels too grounded in character exposition and dialogue to produce any scares or interest. But as the narrative weaves its way into darker territory, the implicit scares become more crucial to the plot, and therefore much creepier. And though descriptions of the activity might seem benign (banging on the walls, moaning, seeing faces on walls), it's executed so well with sound and time in mind to be very disturbing.
The Haunting on Rotten Tomatoes