Netflix delivered. My favorite haunted house movie is here. And lucky for me, it’s quite the fairy tale, and it takes us very nicely into a full weekend of – my favorite favorite – lady horror.
Let’s do it.
The Haunting (1963)
Everybody has a right to run away.
I’m not usually one to advocate for comparisons of films and their source material, which is, in this case, a very quiet and strange Shirley Jackson novel. But I’ll get it out-of-the-way outright – the book’s different. A little bit. Not a ton. But, like, read it. It’s disquieting, to say the least.
Robert Wise directed The Sound of Music. Also West Side Story. But also a lot of creepy-creepers with no music present, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Curse of the Cat People, Audrey Rose, etc, etc. The Haunting is, like all of his films, classic and masterful in its design. It is the kind of polished Hollywood movie that is well done and lasts forever, with current directors still pulling references out of it, whether they even realize it or not (Eyeless statues? Even the remake couldn’t bear to leave those out).
The villain should be, per our discussion of all the other haunted houses last week, Hill House. There’s a lot of “it’s alive!” and “the house is evil,” and “burn it to the ground!” But in my mind, the real baddie here, is little ol’ Eleanor.
Eleanor is the one Hill House wants. Unlike most of the haunted-house victims we’ve encountered, she is a willing participant (actually, if she’s like anyone, I think it might be Jack Torrance). Eleanor doesn’t have a home, a family (at least not a very nice one), a place, a purpose. And she’s visibly (and deservedly) angry about that. She has every motivation to stay at Hill House, a place that has openly invited her and asked her to stay. I think Virginia Wolff said it best:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
I don’t know how much money she’s getting out of the deal, but Eleanor is most certainly gaining a room of her own by dealing with Hugh Crain and whatever power resides over Hill House (I’d suggest becoming a part of the Crain estate in fact binds our girl to a great deal of theoretical money). And fiction? Eleanor may not be looking to write, but she is a teller-of-tales. I don’t mean that she lies – I think everything happening in Hill House is really happening. I just think that Eleanor means things to unfold a certain way, with herself as the main focus.
Evidence of this: her voiceover track (her internal thoughts), which ends up taking over the narration track of the film from Dr. Markway, who began it. Eleanor’s general demeanor is, if not overtly attention seeking, definitely self-possessed.
On a first watch, I’d assume most people find Julie Harris as Eleanor to be a little whiny for their tastes. I find it difficult to pity her, and usually side with the magnificently direct Theo (SLAY, Claire Bloom, SLAY!). You may initially see this as a flaw of the film (I did), that Wise and Harris have created a central character who is unlikable. I say the real flaw is to think Eleanor is the protagonist, when she is, in fact, the primary antagonist (I believe we call them “antiheroes,” now). She sets her sights on getting a rise out of the house by begging to be a part of it, pushing the others so far to the side they are oft in physical danger, all to get what she wants: to be home.
I’m not going to pretend this is some feminist film – Russ Tamblyn’s character sums it up with the greatest He-Man-Woman-Hater joke there ever was, “Only one way to argue with a woman; you don’t!” Every woman in The Haunting is largely insufferable, be they weak, sarcastic, cruel, unbelieving, or simply stiff (Old Mrs. Dudley, gettin’ that breakfast out at a prompt 10 am). But what it does have that other films of its time and ilk don’t, is a woman who gets exactly what she wants.
Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place? -Virginia Wolff
Eleanor climbing the spiral staircase, followed swiftly by Dr. Markway, reaches the top and staring at her would-be savior, holds her own throat and bends backward over the rail. She bends so far it is difficult to say whether it is Eleanor feigning suicide, or something else holding her over the edge.
Other Things to Notice:
If you’re interested in LGBT readings of films made well before the world was cool with it, you should notice all of the subtle (and not so subtle) hints that Theo is a lesbian. The 1999 remake went so far as to make her character bisexual, but you know that had much more to do with keeping male viewers entertained than anything else (very lame). This is actually pretty tasteful on all accounts. I’d be curious what you all have to say about it. And again, Claire Bloom as Theo is fan-freaking-tastic.
I must dreaming of Freddy K on the regular, because I see some Nightmare in this flick, too. When the wood of the doors begins to bend, I immediately see this iconic shot. And knowing the mastery of Wes Craven, this is exactly what he’s referencing.
If You Like It, Watch:
The Birds: Another movie where strange things start to happen when a particular woman arrives in town. Only Tippi Hedren is a very different kind of woman than Miss Eleanor.
Persona: For the artsy fartsies (that includes me, because I love this one), the Bergman film highlights a relationship between two women as different as Theo and Eleanor. And the hold they have e each other is even more than Hill House could hope to manage.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: Persona, but if you’d like to camp it up a bit. A lot. I mean a lot.