Friday, September 30, 2011

The Haunting (1963)

A KFP Guest Review by Nathan Sharp

NetFlix 3.6/5
IMDB 7.7/10
Guest Reviewer Rating: 4.5/5
(My Rating: 10/10)

A professor of the paranormal assembles a team of people with psychic experience to study Hill House, a rambling mansion with an evil history that was "born bad".

This is another KFP guest review, this time of my favorite haunted house movie of all time.  Yes, I am unabashedly a Haunting fanboy and it's one of the few perfect horror films ever made, in my opinion.  I will probably write my own review of it eventually, and have a couple of comments to add here (in blue), but for now let's turn you over to our guest reviewer, Nathan Sharp:

The unwritten rules of horror movies have changed drastically over the years. The horror comedies of the 1980s gave way to Scream and Scary Movie, polarizing horror: either a film was a ruthless deconstruction of horror in an often-mocking tone, or it was a barrage of jump cuts, mirror scares, and sudden noises or musical stings. This latter category moved horror movies from scary to merely startling - the ghost jumping out of the dark and shouting vs the gradual realization that something is following you, matching you step for step, stopping when you pause, and only making itself known when you start walking again. 

The Haunting is a film from a much better time in horror movie history, one in which the audience is expected not only to pay attention (rather than being fed exposition) but also to care about - and know about - its players. This is a movie where the characters matter more than the ghost or special effects, and the film is all the better for it.

Nell, our heroine, is all but trapped in a toxic environment and sees her trip to Hill House, where she will help investigate suspected paranormal activity, as a vacation and escape from her life. Seeing Nell, a caring, sweet, but incredibly fragile woman, run headlong into terror and refuse to leave because it's better than what she left behind, is heartbreaking. Nell is helpless, not because of the horror movie tradition that things are supposed to be scarier when the victim is a woman, but because she's spent her entire life being emotionally abused and has no idea how to take care of herself.  The audience is genuinely concerned for and invested in Nell, and seeing The Haunting play out leaves us just as afraid for her and the other characters as they are for their own safety.

(Nathan touches on something here that I have always loved about The Haunting - That there are no "cannon fodder" characters.  No one is there specifically to die, and the viewer becomes invested in the heroine hugely because... unlike so many horror films... she is fully developed and we believe in her as a person.  But then, they all are - There's Markway, so brilliant and bold and yet emotionally a dunce.  Luke, dashing and wisecracking yet ultimately fragile.  And my favorite, Theo, so worldly wise and savvy and caustic and sharp.  The relationship between Theo and Nell could spur an entire analysis on its own.)

This is a movie that sets a clear tone and pace and refuses to deviate from it, expecting the audience to remain invested and pay attention. The technical limitations of the 1960s mean the movie relied on sets, lighting, and very dramatic and impressive camera angles. Because all the sets had to be built, they are used to their fullest potential and it is a great success. The camera movements especially are fun to watch for anyone else who is interested in how movies are made. The film also has great sound design, and really is best watched alone at night, in the dark.

The writing and acting are both very impressive, as should be expected of a character-driven movie of any kind. The film succeeds on both a technical and personal level: it draws you in the way Hill House itself does, and I consider it far superior to most of the horror films made since its release.

(Needless to say, I agree with all of the above, and if I were ever to make out a list of my top horror films, The Haunting would certainly be in the top five, maybe top 2...  There have been other great haunted house movies, like The Legend of Hell House, The Changeling, The Others, The Woman in Black, heck, even Aiden Quinn's little-known Haunted...  but for me, The Haunting will always be the unrivaled king of such films.)