The relevance of this particular post to this particular blog may be questioned. It's true that no film or story or painting or anything else you can name exercised a more profound and a more direct influence on the development of the Haunted Mansion than Robert Wise's 1963 thriller, The Haunting, as your blog administrator and another blogger have, I think, sufficiently demonstrated. It's also true that the kind of people who read this blog are also the kind of people who have likely seen The Haunting, and not a few own a copy. Nevertheless, a film review per se does not fall under the rubric of "ruminations and revelations concerning the history and artistry of the Haunted Mansion." If I had to, I suppose I could come up with some sort of feeble pretext:
ghost lore. Take The Haunting, for example. Its influence has nothing to do with the quality of the film. It's actually a terrible movie."
Lord knows I have tried to at least like the film. After all, it's perched comfortably in the upper 80's on the Tomatometer, and there is no end of five-star reviews laced with superlatives like "masterpiece," "best ever," and "flawless performances." Top film makers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have saluted it. Film blogs and horror blogs rhapsodize over it. In short, praise rains down upon The Haunting from all sides like a poltergeist stone shower. Not only that, but as a confirmed Mansionhead I feel it is almost my duty to genuflect before this movie.
Well, pardon my upturned finger and my downturned thumb, but (1) the characters are unbelievable and unlikable, (2) it doesn't really have a plot, (3) the Nelson Gidding screenplay is so poorly thought out that it virtually guarantees weak performances from the hapless actors who have to mouth it, and (4) Robert Wise's directing is good in some areas and embarrassingly bad in others. Granted, there are three or four good scares in the movie (a better score than most), and yes, the cinematography ranges from very good to beyond great, but I have always thought that The Haunting taken as a whole is a crashing bore.
Dead on Arrival
Problems with Gidding's screenplay are there from the get-go, as Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) tells us the house is 90 years old and then gives us a narrative of events that cannot possibly be squeezed into 90 years. We're also told that the house was "born bad," that it was evil from the moment it was built. Thanks a lot. Now we're deprived of any fun we may have had in figuring out the story behind the house and how it came to be haunted. As it turns out, there is no story to discover, and we don't even get to discover that, since we are told as much, point blank, right at the beginning. What a stupid thing to do.
Somewhere at some time by some means builder Crane must have unwittingly released (not created) some sort of supernatural Thingie that is evil in some sort of unspecified way. Said Thingie is dangerous and still possesses Crane's house, which is also haunted by his ghost and probably a few others who died there. It's not clear if Crane's ghost can still be distinguished from the evil Thingie itself. We also know that the "heart" of Hill House is the nursery where Crane's daughter grew up and eventually died as an old woman while calling for help, but we never learn why that's so important or anything else about it.
This Markway character is supposed to be the resident expert on the supernatural. What he really is, is a walking fountain of BS. The first time he meets the ladies on his investigative team he makes a lame ghost joke (one of many in the film, I'm afraid), and one of them says, "Don't be ghoulish." Dr. M pounces, "No no! you mustn't confuse 'ghoulish' and 'ghostly.' The word 'ghoulish' is used to describe a feeling of horror, often accompanied by intense cold. It has nothing to do with ghosts. Ghosts are a visible thing." Alas, everything else Professor Gasbag has to say on these topics is equally idiotic, and he won't shut up. He's not even consistent in his blatherings. In one scene he'll pontificate on why the supernatural is nothing to be afraid of, and in another he'll warn of the perils that come with encountering the supernatural.
. Luke: "And just what are these laws?"
. Markway: "You won't know until you break them."
. Luke: "Wait, professor, aren't those two completely different uses of the word 'law'?"
I'm just kidding about the last part. Luke doesn't say that. That was me, yelling at the screen. Markway is such an ass. Would it have been so hard for Wise to read a book or an article or something, just to see what serious or even not-so-serious psychic investigators actually think?
Not content with saying stupid things, Markway and his group go about their "scientific investigation" of Hill House by violating every conceivable rule about scientific investigations. It's only a movie, so I'm willing to cut them a lot of slack in this area, but the film abuses our generosity. At one point some mysterious writing appears on a wall. Do they attempt to preserve it? No. Photograph it? Nope. Sketch it? Nope. They casually erase it. To be fair, before they erase it they at least try to determine what the lettering is made of. They do this by licking it. Based on the taste test, they decide it's either (1) chalk or (2) something like chalk. Say, that's some impressive scientific investigation you've got going there, Doc.
At another point Dr M excitedly finds a cold spot and triumphantly declares, "I guarantee it won't register on any thermometer." Call me picky, but shouldn't Mr. Scientific be getting out a thermometer in order to demonstrate this? You know, for the record? I can just see his final report. "I found a genuine, supernatural cold spot. There was no need to measure it with a thermometer, and I didn't bother, because I just knew it would not register." Yeah, that'll win over the skeptics on the review panel.
If you want to see a credible representation of a haunted house investigation, you're better off watching Scooby-Doo.
Poor, Poor Eleanor
Next, let's look at the main character, Eleanor "Nell" Lance, played by Julie Harris. Nell is very useful if anyone should happen to ask you what a Drama Queen is. If that happens, what you do is, you first cite one of the following . . .
- "A person given to often excessively emotional performances or reactions"
- "A person who treats even the mildest or most trivial problems as if they were major crises"
- "A person who habitually responds to situations in a melodramatic way"
Her neurotic antics begin early and get continually worse. It's bad enough we have to see her and hear her, but we're even forced to listen to a narration of her incoherent thoughts throughout the movie, complete with echo chamber. Nell's character would have been excusable if she were 14 years old, but she's a grown woman, an emotionally immature attention whore, completely self-centered. And here's the hell of it: for once, the Drama Queen happens to be right: at Hill House it really is all about her. That is just plain mean. Every inch of me wants to smack Nell upside the head and tell her to grow up and join the human race (in the name of truth and justice), but the idiosyncratic supernatural setting of the film forbids it. I guess Hill House really is evil.
Want to hear something funny? All three of the other main characters think Eleanor is smokin' hot and would just love to get inside her panties.
"Uncle Owen, This R2 Unit Has a Bad Motivator"
The female characters are maddeningly inconsistent. From scene to scene you might as well toss a coin if you want to anticipate what their reactions are going to be. Here are a few examples, but there's plenty more where they come from.
1) Theo (Clare Bloom) is a "sensitive," and she realizes with horror almost from the beginning that the house "wants" Eleanor, that it's "calling" her, but when the house starts doing things that confirm precisely that, Theo suspects that Nell is just doing stuff to call attention to herself.
2) In some scenes Nell is astonishingly courageous and charges right up to the Ghostly Presence and angrily tells it to STFU, but in other scenes you find her whimpering under the covers if the same Ghostly Presence so much as clears its throat. (I'm wondering, does Wise know that there is a difference between neurotic and psychotic? )
3) Nell is justifiably scared spitless when all hell breaks loose right outside of the room she and Theo are in. The door bangs like gun shots, the knob turns, and the air is unnaturally cold. When it all dies down, Nell laughs and says that they're acting like a couple of "big babies," since after all "it's just a noise." Yeah, just a noise like a Pearl Harbor reenactment in the hallway right outside your room, in a house that you already know is alive and out to get you. And besides, what's this "just a noise" crap? They saw the doorknob twisting and the air temperature must have dropped 30 degrees. Please, don't tell me she's "only trying to convince herself." What she says is too jawdroppingly stupid for anyone even to pretend to think, let alone say out loud. Good Lord, an axe murderer banging on your door is "just a noise" until he breaks through. (I'm wondering, does Wise know that there is a difference between neurotic and dumber than a handball? )
4) The "Like Nell/Hate Nell" switch in Theo's brain evidently has a short in it.
Notta Lotta Plot, Eh?
Let's take a look at the plot of The Haunting. Don't blink or you'll miss it.
- We are told that Hill House is haunted.
- A team of investigators tries to find out if Hill House is haunted.
- They find out it is.
About the ending. This is one of those pictures where the survivors stand around saying things like "She's happier now. It was what she wanted," and other things they can't possibly know. Even with this hoary patch-it-together device in place, the film still can't find its way to a coherent conclusion. Luke, the obligatory skeptic of the group, now understands that the house is thoroughly evil and says it should be burned down and the land "sown with salt." As he stands to inherit the place, there's no reason to think he can't make good on his threat. But Hill House has sucked Eleanor into its evil embrace, and now she too haunts the place. Theo tells us that the house now belongs to Eleanor too, and "perhaps she's happier." Okay, so poor, tormented Eleanor may finally have found peace as one of the haunts of Hill House, and her ghost tells us that she might do it for "another 90 years" (this chick will NOT shut up). But wait, how can she be at peace? Aren't we given to believe that Hill House is still a place of remorseless evil? And didn't the heir to the estate hint just now that he intends to wipe it off the face of the earth?
Crap writing, that's what that is. I have discovered that this movie actually sounds better if you turn your brain down to low.
Let's talk very briefly about character development in The Haunting. Or more accurately, the lack thereof. Nell is exactly the same neurotic, self-centered bore at the moment she dies that she was at the beginning of the movie. As for the others, well, the only noticeable development among them all is that Luke-the-skeptic ends up as Luke-the-believer (I know, I was shocked too). Oh yes, and Dr. Markway's skeptical wife is convinced as well. She's a totally unnecessary character who shows up three-fourths of the way through the movie.
After some unspecified rough treatment from the house, the sneering Mrs. M ends up a sober convert. Since Luke is already there to handle that chore, I don't know why we needed Grace Markway. Possibly they thought that two examples of the same cliché would have greater impact than just one. Still, I kind of like Grace. Maybe it's because she's the only character in the group who doesn't have the hots for Eleanor. (She's not a lesbian, so I guess that explains it.)
Okay, I hear you out there: Now wait just a doggone minute, Mister Grumpypants! Isn't this the film praised to the skies for creating a truly scary haunted house without showing us a single ghost? for creating a believable mood solely through sound effects and brilliant cinematography?
Yes it is, and all of that is true; all of that praise is deserved. The film has lots of atmosphere and is a treat for the eye. So what? How many times have you read (or said) that no amount of gorgeous scenery and dazzling effects and meticulous craftsmanship can save a movie if it doesn't have a good story with believable characters that make you care about them? Is there anything in film criticism more axiomatic than that? Over the years, how many movies have you panned or heard panned on this basis? "Looks good, but it has no heart."
Wise's direction in this film is overrated, anyway. He must have sleepwalked through this project. The film editing is brilliant in isolated spots, but terrible in others. Take the scene early on in which Eleanor argues with her sister and brother-in-law about borrowing the car.
I triple-dog-dare anyone who thinks this movie is a flawless masterpiece to come down here and defend this scene. It's dreadful, not even good enough for a bad TV show. Nor do things improve much as the film progresses. Dialogue between characters is consistently stiff and phony. Whenever someone is rambling along and someone else interrupts, the interruptee obligingly stops dead right there in mid-sentence, before the interrupter's first word is even finished. No overlapping. Why, it's almost as if they were reading a script. And you know how people sometimes make little jokes to lighten the mood when they're nervous or under stress? Well, Wise thinks they also do this when they're in the grip of extreme terror. Not buying it.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
I realize I haven't offered any explanation yet as to why this film's reputation is sky high. I'm thinking the reason people praise The Haunting so extravagantly is that they are aware that others have done so, and they don't want to look like the only person in the room who can't recognize greatness when they see it, and so they add their voice to the chorus, and the whole thing becomes a self-perpetuating myth. Before this groupthink stampede began, 'way back when the film was new, it garnered its fair share of bad press, but nowadays the Internet is awash in glowing reviews. Please. We can all agree that The Haunting is technically brilliant in some important ways, but we should also be able to agree that that's not enough to make a good movie.
So if The Haunting is not "the best haunted house movie of all time," what is? In our next outing, as we assess the possible influence of several other films, and "best ever" may be among them.