Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY: Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009)
and Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014).

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fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Haunting: It Stinks

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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:

"Artistic influence can be drawn from good and bad art alike. In the case of the Haunted Mansion, the only common denominator is popular
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."

I could also claim, with some justification, that I'm performing a valuable service here for the human race, but the plain truth is, I just need to get this thing off my chest: The Haunting isn't just overrated. As a movie, it absolutely stinks. I'm sure many of you disagree. That's okay; I take comfort in the thought that there may also be sighs of relief from readers who feared they were the only ones in the world who don't like The Haunting. Come out of the closet, people, a new day is a-dawning.

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.

* * * Spoilers Ahead * * *

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.

Not to get bogged down in details, but somewhere at some time this man did something wrong

Well, maybe we can still find out something interesting about the house. Let's see. There is a litany of deaths and suicides associated with the place, but all of them are for reasons unknown, and none of them are connected. We are given to understand that its builder, Hugh Crane, hated people and was obsessed with biblical hellfire and damnation, but on the other hand he built the house for his family, he was "greatly embittered" when his wife died (the house's first victim), and Crane himself died in a suspicious drowning accident years later. In other words, even he must be regarded as a victim. Most of this we are told explicitly in the first fifteen minutes. (We learn very little after that.) Also, the film never specifies the nature of the evil of Hill House. It's just evil. Apparently that's supposed to be detail enough. Scraping it all together, here's the absolute maximum we can deduce about our haunted mansion:

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.

That's it, thrillseekers. That pathetic paragraph is an exhaustive explanation of the mystery of Hill House. They say that less is more, but this is a joke, a cruel joke, inasmuch as Dr. Markway, the lead investigator, drops some hints in the opening scenes which suggest that he thinks he has the place figured out, and throughout the movie he claims openly, repeatedly and insistently that they're on the verge of a major breakthrough. In short, the audience has every reason to believe that the mystery of the house will be completely revealed at some point, but it never happens.


Dr. Marquack

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.

 "Not only that, but if you like your insurance you can keep it."

Check out this typical exchange between Markway and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the remaining member of the team:
.         Markway:      "Psychic phenomena are subject to certain laws."
.         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"
. . . and then you wrap it up by saying, "you know, like Eleanor in The Haunting."


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 herThat 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.
That's all, boys and girls. There are some things that look like plot developments laying around, but none of them go anywhere. Dr. Markway and Eleanor start falling in love. So? There is no reason for us to care, which is good, since literally nothing comes of it. There is also an unstated lesbian subplot, and some people want to give the 1963 film points for bravery here, even though there is an unstated lesbian subplot in Rebecca (1940) and in The Uninvited (1944), and unlike The Haunting, in those films the subplot actually matters. In The Haunting, Theo's lesbianism makes precisely as much difference to the story as which side of her head she parts her hair on. There's also a lot of bickering and sniping between the characters (usually Nell's fault), but none of it is ever about anything that matters. That is to say, (1) none of it reveals anything new or important about any of the characters and (2) none of it moves the story along. It's just there to make it look like something is happening in the movie.

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.


Character Flaws

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.)


Wise Cracks

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.

Lots of scenes are unnecessary. Some are little more than showcases for Dr. Markway's 10-watt rambles or new opportunities for Luke to tell us for the umpteenth time that he doesn't believe any of that stuff. Strictly fast-forward button bait. I don't blame the actors. They do about as well as can be expected, given the lousy scripting and directing.

It helps if you recognize that The Haunting was just a quickie Wise did between two major projects, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). That may explain why so much of his direction here is slipshod. He's a good director when he wants to be. This time out he didn't.


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. B
efore 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.



37 comments:

  1. Gee, Dan - don't hold back; tell us how you *really* feel...

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    1. Well, if you're trying to chart a new course through the jungle, you need to use a machete. :)

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  2. Before you write blog diarrhea you should make sure you have some idea what you're talking about. "It helps if you recognize that The Haunting was just a quickie Wise did between two major projects, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). That may explain why so much of his direction here is slipshod. He's a good director when he wants to be. This time out he didn't." This movie was neither rushed into production or finished quickly. You should move your considerable "talents" as a researcher over to Gawker.

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  3. I just saw you're from San Jose, and I too, the Gawker-suggester am from San Jose! Small world.

    This is some ding-bat movie reviewing if I've ever read some, and trust me, you're a hell of a regular blogger when you stick to stuff you know about. Do you even like horror movies? Based on your actual listed "faves", most of which are safe choices and not likely to irk anyone by claiming them as your own, Master & Commander and Glory are totally unremarkable and beg posing the question: Do you watch movies? I'd guess you have zero perspective on what makes a horror movie good, especially one from 1963, especially one that you think was made quickly or as a throw-away in the middle of two much less interesting safe films like West Side Story and The Music Man. I doubt you could tell me much about any horror movie from any year, for that matter.

    That being said, I'll not burden you with many reasons why this is the silliest troll blog I've read on your otherwise fantastic site since I began reading it and telling people about it a couple or three years back. Stick to your Haunted Mansion & "the Bible" knowledge and you'll continue to only come off as slightly insane (and in those areas, it's not a bad thing) as opposed to insane and out of touch with topics he chooses to blog about (in this case a bad thing).

    I suggest you next write about the Vietnam influences in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. LOL.

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    1. I'm publishing these comments because in fairness I expect to see some strong disagreements after such an opinionated review of a popular film, but I'm hoping for better than this. My review is very specific about exactly what is wrong with the film. Nowhere in these comments is there a single rebuttal to a single point I make. I see a lot of insults, but where are the arguments?

      The only thing close to a substantive response is the objection to my characterization of The Haunting as a quickie between major projects. I offer that assessment primarily in order to supply Mr. Wise with some sort of face-saving excuse for this botch job, because despite what Wise and others have said, there are indicators that Wise was not as fully engaged as he and others would have you believe. Wise's other films have coherent stories, real plots, engaging characters, including the big films before and after. Why not The Haunting? In fact, it is known that Gidding wrote the sceenplay with little or no input from Wise, and little or no evidence of serious revisions afterward. I call that evidence of disengagement, whether you want to put it down to budget or time restraints or something else entirely. Wise spent quality time on the technical aspects of the film, but he should have paid closer attention to the essentials of story and character before the cameras got rolling. However, if you want to dispute that and insist that this was a not a quickie but a carefully crafted film with all of Wise's faculties engaged, then fine, fair enough, and congratulations, because all you've done in that case is prove that he's a bad filmmaker. I'm not willing to say that. Meanwhile, every one of my points about The Haunting itself go unchallenged.

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  4. I agree with almost every criticism you've leveled at the film and even after several viewings I never really warmed up to it (maybe I got stuck in the cold spot without a thermometer!)

    But I also think any film needs to be considered at least partially in the context of the time in which it was made.... what exactly WAS the state of the "haunted house" film by 1962, anyway? I'm curious to hear how you'd rank The Haunting when compared to its contemporaries and predecessors. There are two films that come to mind immediately: The Innocents and 13 Ghosts... (and I LOVE them both!)

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    1. In my opinion, The Innocents may be the best haunted house/ghost movie of all time, thanks in great measure to a strong story (Henry James, after all) and strong performances all around. I expect a great performance from Deborah Kerr, so that isn't a surprise, but the children are nothing less than amazing. That's 1961. That same year Roger Corman did what I think is the best of his Poe films, The Pit and the Pendulum. It suffers from the same issues as a lot of Corman films (a general cheesiness, low-budget production, gaping plot holes, some mediocre performances), but it somehow transcends all of that and is a genuinely scary film. I haven't seen 13 Ghosts, I confess. I'm going to be talking about another very good old film next post, so I won't pursue this further. Let's just say that I don't think my problems with The Haunting are due to my inability to appreciate scary films from that era.

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    2. I spent one Saturday watching five different film versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher." Although they all had their strong and weak points, the Corman version with Vincent Price was still my favorite by the end of the day. And it had the best haunted house set.

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  5. The Haunting remake wood carving scene weirded me out.
    so did that Giant statue in that pool in the conservatory.

    other than that,,
    just a lotta Banging noises

    and some stretching.
    ,

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  6. Imagine if Dr. Egon Spengler had used the same scientific methods as Dr. Markway....

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  7. I waited the whole time reading.... hoping for a glimpse of our precious HM. Disappointed to have read it so thoroughly.

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    1. Sorry to have disappointed you. As I tried to make clear in the opening paragraph, this post is an anomalous departure. Next time around we'll be back to topic.

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  8. I think The Haunting is a good enough film, although not the cult it has grown into. I appreciate it for its use of ambiguity to increase tension; but therein lies its biggest downfall in my estimation, because the original book does it so much better. If one has read The Haunting of Hill House (and shame on the heads of those who have not) they will note the skill that Shirley Jackson uses to create a sinister environment out of elements that dont quite add up; things that dont fit together correctly; just like Hill House doesnt fit together correctly. In fact, in the book, we quickly find that the ONLY character that matters is the house. That makes the rest of the characters silly throwaways. Maybe that is why they come off so insipidly in the movie. They were never meant to matter. They are fodder. The book's first and last sentence are about the only real entity in the narrative. Hill House is not sane, by the way, and the reader should never forget that...

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    1. You make an excellent point about Hill House being a logic unto itself, and the film would have been much better, maybe even salvaged, if the remaining characters had left off in utter bewilderment, utterly at a loss, like small children. But Markway still thinks he's got the house figured out. He's going back into the house to call the police (we're supposed to have forgotten that there are no phones in the house), and the others try to stop him, to which he replies that there's no need to worry, since "the house has what it wants—for now." See, it still fits into his thought world in a comprehensible place. Luke and Mrs. M now believe in evil ghosts. This is a sobering and uncomfortable new fact, but they'll simply incorporate this new fact into their former and future lives. There's no indication that they are psychically smashed to bits. Theo's still cool and calm. No one is shattered, no one left speechless. The house has stretched their mental worlds without abolishing them. If it had, then most of the flaws in the film would have been shown to be meaningless.

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  9. I completely agree, and in the novel this is exactly what happens. I agree the film script is a major failure at that point.

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  10. MAN!,,,,, That's DEEP!

    look away,,
    Look away''

    over YONDER!

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  11. I'll be honest, while I'm aware of the original I've never been able to get through it. I did watch the remake, and enjoyed it for it what it was, but I've always preferred "The Legend of Hell House" myself

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    1. Yeah, having forced myself to watch the film many times, I know what you mean about "getting through it." The cumulative effect of the film's flaws results in a movie that drags like the mummy's left leg.

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    2. "drags like the mummy's left leg" hilariously accurate!

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  12. Everyone comes to a work of art with his own context and expectations, and I’m not out to convince you to like something you don’t, but I though you brought up some interesting points I wanted to address.

    For me, and for other fans of the movie I know, the fact that a detailed, definitive explanation of the haunting isn’t laid out (“You moved the headstones but not the bodies! WHY?!?”) is a feature rather than a bug. I absolutely hate it when horror movies get too explainy; it takes all the fun and, well, the horror out of it. That’s the main reason I hated the remake. If one is looking for a source of ghosts, the fact that a bunch of people died horrible deaths in the house seems like enough.

    However, it’s very strongly implied that the house isn’t haunted at all – that the legends are only legends, and that the phenomena observed by Markway and the others are the result of Eleanor’s telekinesis. It’s left for the audience to make the final decision, which they can’t do if they find a secret zombie curse written in blood or some other movie-conventional “explanation.”

    Eleanor IS emotionally unstable – that’s the whole point. She’s just come out of a long, abusive relationship with her eccentric, overbearing mother (she says the neighbors were always against us!). (She fits many characteristics of adult children of alcoholics and adult survivors of child abuse, FWIW.) Her grief and vulnerability is what brings out Markway’s and Theo’s protective instincts; they both know what it's like to be outsiders (Markway because his field isn’t respected, and Theo because of her sexuality). Her disturbance is what opens up the possibility that she’s causing the ghostly manifestations. She was only able to throw a few rocks at the roof when she was a girl, but now her emotions are so strong and out of control she can haunt a whole house.

    All I can say about the scene in the sister’s apartment is that if you think it doesn’t sound like real people, then you and I must have known radically different kinds of people. The sister in particular rings incredibly true to life.

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    1. That's a thoughtful response, and thank you, but I don't see how your reading can work. I know that Gidding thought the book was more about a mental breakdown than a real haunting, but author Shirley Jackson told him no, it's a real haunted house, so he simply decided to put elements of a mental breakdown into the movie. Having Eleanor cause the genuine phenomena via telekinesis would seem to be a compromise position (it's real, but it's her doing it); nevertheless, it seems to me that they closed the door on any interpretation other than a straight-ahead, real haunted house. That long spiel which opens the movie is presented as Markway's expert research into the background of the house, nothing of which is legend. The parallels between the deaths of Abigail Crane and Eleanor's mother predate any acquaintance with the house by Eleanor, so that's objectively real and has nothing to do with her. The old women who currently owns it is no Shirley MacLaine and doesn't seem easily rattled, but she's convinced its haunted, as are the Dudleys. There must be some reason Mrs. Dudley will not stay in the house after dark, and she too seems like a tough cookie not easily frightened. In scenes like the "cold spot" examination, it is hard for me to believe that we are supposed to countenance the possibility that we are dealing with Nell's subconscious telekinesis as Markway and Luke hold a conversation while standing around a column of chilled air and playing with it. Indeed, the behavior of the house (trembling like it's going to fall, cold spots, bulging doors, etc.) goes so far beyond even the most extravagant reports of telekinesis that some sort of overt claim would have to be made somewhere in the movie before audiences could be expected to "figure it out" by even considering such an option. I don't see that there is any clear implication, let alone a "strongly implied" one, that Nell is doing all this. No one at the end of the film suggests any such explanation, and how do you explain the fact that we hear the voice of Nell at the very end as a ghost telling us about her new status as a haunt in the house? As for Theo, far from having "protective instincts" with regard to Nell, she serves as a cruel foil who only intensifies Nell's feeling of being an outsider. She herself is perfectly comfortable in her own skin, and the only time her lesbianism makes her seem the least bit vulnerable is when Nell practically shouts that she's a pervert right to her face. I don't see Nell's telekinesis as a viable reading of the film.

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    2. One can assume that Nell is a ghost, or that we’re just hearing the omniscient narration in Julie Harris’s voice, or that the rest of the characters are imagining her as a ghost. I always thought it was an ironic twist ending that the other characters assumed she was a ghost when it was possible there were no ghosts at all. I would actually feel talked down to if the other characters said, “Hey, maybe she did it all herself!” It was more interesting when we got to wonder whether the Bride in the Haunted Mansion attic killed her groom or not, and I’ll be disappointed if they ever add dialog saying, “Of course, there’s always my way – I hung myself in the cupola on June 14, 1890 because the police were after me, and then they rebuilt the cupola to have a different number of walls, and there’s a picture of me holding a hatchet in the hallway because I killed my neighbors with a hatchet and that’s why the police were after me. Spooky, isn’t it?”

      As for Theo, she is comfortable with herself, but it’s hard to imagine that in the 1960’s she hadn’t dealt with a lot of prejudice and abuse before she achieved that state. And yes, she does go back and forth between comforting Nell and goading her – a lot of people get frustrated with people as emotional as Nell. You did, yourself! I can hear her mental dialog: “I feel sorry for you, kid, I really do, but wake up and smell the coffee! I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.”

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    3. There is no omniscient narrator in the movie. What sounds like it at the beginning turns out to be Markway actually talking to someone. Only real voices (and actual thoughts) are heard in the movie, the latter demarcated by echo chamber. I can't think of any reasonable interpretation of the end other than "Nell is a ghost." We definitely don't agree about Theo. She only likes Nell (1) for carnal reasons and/or (2) if Nell shows an inclination to "snap out of it." I don't read anything I would call sympathy at any time. There's a problem too in that telekinesis means moving stuff around, not creating whole phenomena out of thin air like dramatic temperature drops, or influencing the fears or behaviors of others, or controlling either the perceptions of others or the nature of sound waves to the point that a loud sound is heard on one side of a door but not the other. "Telekinesis" doesn't begin to cover what happens. Somewhere in the film there would have to be a hint or suggestion for the "Nell is doing it all" solution to be plausible. There's also the unexplained coincidence of a house with a completely unfounded reputation for deadly supernaturalism suddenly hosting someone who is capable of producing all manner of deadly supernaturalism via her psychic distress, and she not even aware of the house's reputation! Remember that Markway is delighted that she knows nothing of the house's history and intends to keep her ignorant of it so as to enhance her credibility as a witness. That's more coincidence than I think an audience should have to swallow.

      To me it's more credible to believe the house is evil and alive, and Nell has somehow crossed its radar screen, and all of Markway's curiosity in the house and his selection of Nell is only the devil whispering in his ear, so to speak, so as to get her into the house. Why? Because she's the easiest pickin's the house has ever seen, a plum ready to pick.

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  13. I can find reasons that almost every movie stinks. (I don't like anything, really.) I'm not here to argue with you, friendo. I do, however, wonder what your motivations are for this troll piece? Is it to point out that you're better than people because they like a movie you don't and can't defend it in a tangible way? Because it's really easy to shit on everything. Really easy. Trust me. I've been doing it for the last twenty years (I'm not 20). And up until now, I'd not seen you stoop to such lows, especially since they're self-serving and self-aggrandizing. You could easily have just written your bit on what you think the best 'Haunted House' movie is, as opposed to posting a vitriolic slash piece that has no place on your otherwise wonderful and laudable blog. I refuse to believe someone as intelligent as you is really sitting around stewing because people like something a lot that you don't. So, what's the point of this? You're no trailblazer in the realm of movie critique muckraking.

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    1. There's plenty of snark in it, I don't deny, but it's a substantial movie review making substantial points, not just a heap of insults. As I say at the beginning, I would LIKE to find some way, some how, to like or at least respect this movie, and I'm half-hoping that by laying out what I think is wrong with it, someone can respond by showing me what I'm missing that so many others are seeing. I appreciated Melissa's response, for example. It's exactly the kind of thing I'd like to see, but unfortunately it's an interpretation of the film I don't think works.

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  14. I think the Eleanor angle is valid, however I always thought that the house used her as "fuel" rather than that she created everything. I still think the book does a much better job of exploring these issues, though.

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    1. I can see Nell as inadvertently squirting gasoline on the fire, but some Force brought her to the house in the first place. The weird similarity between Abigail Crane's death and Nell's mother's death smacks of cosmic fate or fiendish machination. It's beyond the contrivance of any of the humans operating in the film's world, that's for certain. The main thing is, there's a Nasty Presence there independent of Nell, regardless of how much she inflames it. I think of Mrs. Dudley's look and smile, which says, "You poor innocent fools; you have no idea what you're in for." No scaredy-cat is she. I still think Mrs. D is one of the clearest proofs that the house should be regarded as authentically haunted.

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  15. personally i think the Breakthrough haunted house movie was actually a haunted Townhouse movie.
    "You moved the Bodies but left the headstones"
    Didn't you,,
    Didn't YOU!!""

    Poltergeist used every element of past Haunted house movies
    and to me is the last to use the old techniques of film making before the dawn of CGI.
    And now I hear that it is to become a remake too.

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  16. But I'm driving offa the trail here
    and since I'm only familiar with the remake of the haunting,
    I shall disappear until you post your new blog. .

    But thanks HBG

    I'm sure there is a method to your review of the original Haunting
    and I will leave it at that.

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  17. I think you nailed it here:
    "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..."

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  18. I actually agree with you, Dan, on the weak plot points and bad characters of The Haunting. Unfortunately, this actually seems to be a problem in several haunted house films. The Legend of Hell House is a chore to sit through and the characters are all annoying in one way or another: both the scientist and medium nun are closed-minded and self-rightous in their beliefs to a fault, Roddy McDowell's psychic's moping is understandable but gets grating fast,and the scientist's wife has no character other than being sex-deprived. There are long periods of time where nothing happens (story or character development-wise) and Roddy's sudden change of heart to confront Belasco, a powerful ghost responsible for the death of several people, by insulting him into oblivion. Are you kidding me?!! 13 Ghosts has the problem of bland characters (other than Margeret Hamilton) and a lack of plot. The ghosts themselves do nothing but be a nuisance or basically serve as entertainment for the little boy. There's a Scooby-Doo-esque plot involving the lawyer trying to scare off the family to keep hidden money, who's death the ghosts seem to deus-ex-machina at the last minute for no reason. Poltergeist is a bit stronger in terms of plot, but I still find the family grating and the ghosts just seem to show up and kidnap Carol-Ann out of the blue. Why do these ghost just now decide to make a fuss over the fact that houses were built over their burial ground? The house was built probably long before the Freelings ever moved in! That said I do like The Uninvited, I think it has a strong story and OK characters. It's strange to say but despite some acting flaws and not always stellar special effects, the remakes of The Haunting and 13 Ghosts (titled Thir13en Ghosts) are actually much stronger in terms of story than the originals. The same goes for the remake of House on Haunted Hill, of which the original which can't decide whether there are ghosts or whether we're in murder-oriented Scooby-Doo territory. The original film just stops rather than have an actual conclusion (a problem which Corman seemed to have in multiple films like Attack of the Crab Monsters). Honestly, if you want good films about psychosis and ghosts go watch The Innocents or The Shining (even if Shelly Duvall's character is like a parody of a battered housewife). Man, what is with haunted house films and annoying characters? It's like places with supernatural phenomena are magnets for them!

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    1. I can't say much because some of those films enter the discussion in future posts, but yes, I have noticed that there is a dearth of really good haunted house movies (and we may as well add the 2003 Eddie Murphy HM film to the pile of disappointments while we're at it). It's a head-scratcher, because it doesn't seem to me like it should be the hardest kind of film to make. The few good ones you mention are the same ones I would pick. RE Poltergeist, you know, when it first came out I saw it, and I too found the family unbelievable and unlikable, but for awhile there the film seems to be motoring along pretty well anyway, creepy and scary. I eventually bail on it, however, as the phenomena starts to pile on with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, like a monster movie that starts well and then wears out its welcome by having the Creature show up every time you turn around in the second half of the film. I think Poltergeist goes 'way over the top and ends up more noisy than scary. But maybe that's just me.

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  19. A lot of it may have to do with the times, technology, film budgets and of course
    the audience's attention span.

    Look at how LONG some movies were in the 5o's and early 60's,,
    to the point you had to have intermissions

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    1. Four words: Lord of the Rings (or six: The Hobbit). Long, long movies are still being made. The Haunting runs only 112 minutes; it just seems longer.

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  20. Good point.
    Then in some instances , it must be the moment in time and the maturity of the audience.
    i always Loved poltergeist, but what?,,, 32 33 years after it's release, I see it now and your right,
    I can detect the bad acting, Cheesy moments,
    and of course
    ALL THE NOISE NOISE NOISE!

    The final result, something that gripped me years ago is now ho hum.

    But some movies like the Wizard of oz,,
    ,, I can't shake.

    Well HB,,
    now I'm just gonna hafta watch the original Haunting..
    You've got my Curiosity up.
    back later.

    BV

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  21. Great post. I must confess that I've never been to the Haunted Mansion (or to Disney, for that matter). I read and enjoy your blog because of the writing and the research—it's so amazingly comprehensive. I'm pleased to see you branch out. You make any subject fascinating (and old film happens to be one I enjoy).

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