The first time I saw Robert Wise’s 1963 movie The Haunting, I was pretty young and I didn’t like it much. Too boring, I thought. But upon subsequent viewings I have come to think it’s actually a pretty effective horror film, because it does not rely on the grotesque and horrible to instill fear, but rather on subtle psychological manipulation.
In brief, the story concerns a paranormal researcher’s study of a reputedly haunted house. The film focuses on one participant, Eleanor Lance, who is apparently sensitive to the supernatural. Gradually, it begins to seem that the unexplainable phenomena of the “haunting” is directed at her.
What makes the movie interesting is that it’s hard to tell whether Eleanor is truly being haunted by anything or if she is just going insane. The ambiguity makes for a good “let the viewer decide” puzzle, which I like very much. I suppose the closing narration does tip the balance somewhat in favor of a supernatural explanation, but still, it’s very good.
One weakness in the movie is that Eleanor herself is not very sympathetic. I think the viewer is supposed to pity her, and I guess I kind of did, but to an extent it made her seem so vulnerable that it doesn’t seem that surprising that the house would cause her such distress.
The other problem I have isn’t so much with this movie in particular as it is with the whole “Haunted House” genre, which is that haunted houses aren’t especially scary unless you go inside them. Apparently, as the opening narration makes clear, “Hill House has stood for 90 years”, and hasn’t hurt anybody except those who decided to live in it during that time. This isn’t really that scary, because you know that as long as you don’t go in the place, you will be okay. It may pose a threat to sensitive souls like Eleanor, but not to the world at large.
To me, that isn’t frightening in the way that Lovecraftian monsters or even creatures like the Wolf Man and such are, because those things are autonomous and can go all around spreading terror. While haunted houses just sit there, being haunted.
However, with that said, it’s still very effective; the House itself looks very sinister, and the cinematography does a great job conveying unseen threat. If the “Haunted House” concept isn’t all that frightening upon reflection, it certainly is easy to forget that while watching the movie.
I know they remade the movie in 1999. I haven’t seen the remake, but I have heard it was much less subtle than the original, and made the supernatural much more explicit. I won’t judge without seeing it, but seems plausible. Horror movies have declined a great deal since the ’60s.