Dir: Robert Wise. Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, and Rosalie Crutchley. 1963
Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is perhaps the greatest ghost story ever committed to paper and to film. Director Robert Wise had worked with producer Val Lewton in the 1940’s directing The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher for RKO, and so was well versed in the sort of psychological, shadowy horror found in Jackson’s work. Shortly after directing West Side Story and immediately before The Sound of Music, Wise returned to his roots and gave The Haunting the onscreen treatment it screamed for.
Each actor is perfectly suited to his or her role, inhabiting the by now overly familiar premise of a group of people who gather to explore reported psychic phenomenon in a haunted house, a massive one at that in the case of Hill House. The question here is, is the phenomenon they experience real, or some sort of manifestation created by the lonely Eleanor?
Additionally, the score by Humphrey Searle, cinematography by Davis Boulton, screenplay by Nelson Gidding, set design and sound work contribute immeasurably to the film’s impact. This is an example of a film where all departments, much like The Exorcist, are at the top of their game. And for my money, the hand-holding scene, later aped in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, deserves to be included on any list of great scenes of horror.
On a similar note, the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel is among the best to be found in the horror genre or any genre for that matter, and Wise matches it with the film’s opening montage. Here, Jackson's opening deserves the last word:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”