The infamous Hill House was built by a stern, heartless man named Hugh Crain eighty years earlier for his first wife, and the residence has seen the mysterious deaths of no fewer than four women since that time.
Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) – a lonely and repressed woman in her mid-thirties – jumps at the chance to partake in a psychic experiment arranged by Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist who seeks scientific evidence of paranormal activity.
After arriving at Hill House, Eleanor meets Dr Markway (to whom she is instantly attracted), Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), sceptical nephew of the current landlord, and Theodora – “just Theodora” (Claire Bloom) – an artist, psychic, and (it is strongly suggested) lesbian with an apparent interest in getting her new roommate to open up.
Shortly after the group arrives, strange things start to happen – something from beyond the grave prowls the panelled corridors and climbs the creaking walls.
It’s a study in psychic phenomena, with the scariest chills heard and implied rather than seen. All you see are pulsating walls and all you hear are loud pounding noises.
Julie Harris shines as Eleanor, the spinster worst affected by the poltergeist events and whose psychological state is cleverly kept in question throughout the tale.
When Dr Markway’s wife (Lois Maxwell) shows up unexpectedly, Eleanor’s anticipated breakdown becomes a reality.
Sent away by the others, who fear her complete collapse, she loses control of her car to unseen forces and crashes headlong into a tree, where she dies in the same spot as Hugh Crain’s first wife did years earlier.
The Haunting looks beautiful in black and white and has some incredible camerawork – those shots of the spiral staircase are a wonderful example – which give the film an uncanny sense of unease and a vivid sense of style.
The film’s great strength lies in the fact that its “thing” is never seen. And the infra-red camerawork makes the walls of the house seem almost alive.
The headache-inducing CGI-heavy 1990s remake of The Haunting simply served to make the original look like even more of a classic. Here you had to imagine what might be behind the door . . . and your imagination will always beat a CGI monster.
There isn’t much logic here, but by the time it’s over, you may never turn the lights out again.
Based on a novel called The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Dr John Markway
First Mrs Crain
Abigail Crain age 80
Abigail Crain’s Nurse-Companion
Abigail Crain age 6
Second Mrs Crain