July 12, 2011

The Haunting (1963)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Robert Wise
Stars: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson

What it's about. Supernatural researcher Richard Johnson is granted use of a drafty haunted house, and invited along are confident hottie lesbian Claire Bloom, anxious and possibly disturbed Julie Harris, and cynical former Jet and future heir Russ Tamblyn. Johnson's screen wife has a cameo appearance, and turns out to be Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell.

The creepy and unfriendly caretakers of the mansion are Rosalie Crutchley and Valentine Dyall. But don't say that they didn't warn you. Predictably, spooky and scary things happen, chiefly at the expense of Harris.

This movie was unsuccessfully remade in 1999.

How others will see it. After West Side Story, director Robert Wise had considerable credibility, and his filmmaker roots were in low budget horror movies. The Haunting was well received and profitable but earned only a single award nomination, a Best Director nod from the Golden Globes.

Today, the user ratings are high, especially from women over 45 and anyone under 18. Since the special effects budget consisted of a single rubber door, the movie is really a character study, mostly concerning emotionally fragile Julie Harris.

Harris has had decades of remarkable success in theater, and her status as a top-notch actress is beyond dispute. Nonetheless, Harris' character here annoys some viewers, presumably males who would rather be watching Claire Bloom. Yet others undoubtedly take a nearly malicious pleasure in Harris' increasing hysteria.

How I felt about it. It's all about Harris, really. This is a woman without confidence, without income, without love. Her relatives have put up with her but do not as much as like her. She is drawn to the haunted house, and why not? It is an adventure, an escape from her loveless relatives, and an opportunity to meet new people, who might like or even love her. One thing is for certain: she doesn't want to go back "home", where at best it will be just like it was before, except for the added shame of a forced return.

But there are problems with Harris' plan. The house is, after all, haunted. And she is susceptible to its evil influence. But even beyond that, there is the question of whether Harris can form close friendships. She is attracted to Johnson, of course, but he has no interest in her, except as a pawn in his experiment. Ultimately, he does feel something toward Harris: guilt.

Her best chance is with Bloom, who has taken a chilly interest in her. But it would not be a friendship on even terms. Bloom takes a nearly sadistic pleasure in distressing Harris, and would presumably eventually try to seduce her.

So, Harris bonds with the house, which wants her in return. But does it want her alive, or dead?