Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 1, 2003)
With the DVD release of 1963’s The Haunting, one must wonder what took the folks at Warner Bros. so long. Shouldn’t this sucker have hit the shelves back in 1999 when the Jan de Bont remake brought more attention to the property?
Whatever the reason behind the delay may be, the original version finally is here. I saw the remake and was one of about six people who kind of liked it. The flick didn’t knock me out, but I thought it was more entertaining than many indicated.
The original presents a very similar tale, though changes do occur. The film starts with the dark history of the Hill House. Built by Hugh Crain in the 19th century, we learn of how it allegedly came to be haunted. Eventually a woman named Mrs. Sannerson (Fay Compton) inherits the house, and Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) wants to use it for psychic research. She agrees but establishes that her nephew Luke (Russ Tamblyn) – who hopes to get his greedy mitts on the sprawling manse before long – must be there for the studies.
We then encounter Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), a meek and mousy woman who spent the last decade or so caring for her ill mother. With the old lady now deceased, Nell wants to start to live her own life, but her controlling sister (Diane Clare) – with whose family Nell lives – stands in her way. Nell goes off for the stint at Hill House anyway, and gets there before anyone else.
Nell meets Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley), the caretakers. Mrs. Dudley obliquely warns Nell of the house’s dangers as she establishes some rules. Before long, the other study participant arrives. A stylish socialite with apparently strong ESP abilities, Theodora (Claire Bloom) takes an instant interest in Nell that goes beyond platonic friendship.
Dr. Markway soon shows up as well, and the trio tours the spooky house. When Luke comes on board, they ensconce themselves in the building and get to know each other. Some sexual tension develops: Theo clearly is interested in Nell, but Luke has the hots for Theo. Dr. Markway and Nell seem drawn to each other as well, but the former is married, which Nell doesn’t find out until later.
During their first night in the house, Nell and Theo undergo a ghostly “attack” that mostly conjures up a lot of noise. The men got drawn away and didn’t hear any of this racket. From there the movie explores what happens to the residents as they get pulled deeper and deeper into the building’s creepiness and try to establish what’s really happening. Eventually Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) comes onto the scene as well, which heats up matters to a degree.
That latter introduction provides probably the movie’s weakest point. Grace arrives at Hill House very late in the game and exists literally as nothing more than a plot device. She then plays much too influential a role in the proceedings. Grace is there for no reason other than to move along the story in a certain direction, but it doesn’t need her to go that way.
In one of the few improvements displayed by the 1999 Haunting, it dispensed with the Grace character. The only other significantly stronger aspect of the de Bont edition comes from its audio. I’ll discuss this DVD’s sound quality more fully later in the review, but the 1999 Haunting offered one of the all-time great mixes, especially in its DTS incarnation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that when de Bont’s movie works, it does so due to the terrific sound design.
Since the 1963 Haunting shows us nothing and also uses audio to a heavy degree, it loses much of that impact. I didn’t expect the sound of a 40-year-old flick to live up to that from a recent offering, but the somewhat toothless audio found with this movie hampers it somewhat.
Still, the rest of the flick works well enough to make it significantly stronger than the 1999 take. This occurs mainly for two reasons. First, the multiple Oscar-winning Robert Wise is a much better director than de Bont. The latter can pull off some good action scenes but not much else, whereas Wise could do it all. His Haunting is a much tighter and better-paced flick, and it seems considerably spookier.
The other improvement found here stems from the fact that Wise makes The Haunting a more subtle experience. The de Bont version doesn’t allow much room for interpretation; it shows us so many supernatural events that we’re left with nowhere to go other than believe that the house is haunted.
Wise, on the other hand, doesn’t spell things out in that manner. Do ghosts reside in Hill House or is these events all in the imaginations of the participants? Wise doesn’t tell, and since most of the movie comes from the perspective of the seemingly mentally unstable Nell, the questions become even more prominent. This ambiguity works well for the flick, as it keeps us guessing.
Interestingly, one area in which Wise’s Haunting is less subtle than de Bont’s stems from Theo’s intentions. No, she never comes out and tells Nell she wants her, but it’s pretty darned clear from her behavior. In the de Bont take, we get more ambiguous hints from the Theo character. The Wise version seems superior in that regard, if just because it more prominently plays up the sexual tension among all the participants and makes it a real factor in the flick.
Just as I think the de Bont Haunting is better than its detractors would have you believe, I also feel the Wise Haunting isn’t as great as its champions claim. However, the latter does provide the superior movie without question. It suffers from a few minor flaws but it generally comes across as creepy and effective. If we could combine the positives of both versions, we’d have a tremendous scary movie.