Friday, October 23, 2015

Erik's Favorite Things: The Haunting

In 1963, a movie came out that started to generate a lot of buzz as to how terrifying it was.  Movie theaters held contests to see who could get through a midnight showing of it.  Reviewers claimed that people they saw it with climbed out of their chairs in terror.  It wound up on the favorite horror movie lists of people like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and many other respected film-connected individuals.

And yet, if I tell you the title, you're going to remember a sub-par movie with Owen Wilson, Liam Neeson, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, because it came out in 1999 during a flood of lackluster horror remakes and it cranked up Catherine Zeta-Jones' sex levels to 11.

But we're not going to talk about that bucket of chum so rank and stale that not even a starving shark would be drawn to it, we're going to talk about the original.  We're talking about The Haunting.

If I had to summarize just why I love this movie so much in one word, I'd have to say "subtlety."  Unlike the garbage remake that came out in 1999, this movie has extremely limited special effects.   It didn't have overpowering music, it didn't have any intense action sequences, and it didn't have any overly loud, dramatic speeches.  It's the story of a professor who brings a team together to investigate an old house that's rumored to be haunted.

What's that?  You're saying the remake had the professor fake a sleep study in order to lure people to the house to see how they react to fear?  Yeah, well, look, just watch The Nostalgia Critic's review of the remake and we'll never mention the newer one again.

The people that Professor Markway (played by Richard Johnson, distinguished actor from Khartoum, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, and, sigh, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider) bring together are two women and the heir of the current owner.

The other young man is Luke Sanderson, a nonbeliever in all things mystical other than the occasional superstition.  He's played by stage actor Russ Tamblyn.  The two women are Eleanor "Nell" Lance and Theodora "Theo" NoLastNameGiven.  Nell has escaped a dreary life of living in her sister's living room after spending eleven years taking care of their infirm mother.  Theo is a possibly gifted psychic, able to master the "what card am I holding up without looking at it" trick from the opening of Ghostbusters.  Oh, and she's also gay.

Now, see, here's something about this movie, it's one of the first ones (and heralded so as) to be willing to show that a woman who was gay or bisexual could be feminine instead of being a butch, unattractive woman.  The movie can't explicitly state that Theo's gay, but there's enough undercurrent with her interactions with Nell that it becomes pretty obvious.  There's an especially poignant moment when an extremely upset Nell uses the phrase "nature's mistakes like you" to Theo, and watching Theo's reaction tells you that there's no doubt what's being said.  It adds some interesting tension to some of the conversations.  There are moments where Luke starts to suspect by Theo doesn't respond to his flirtations, or we see genuine tension between Theo and Professor Markway when it seems they both have an interest in Nell as something more than just "weird paranormal coworker."

Nell is played extremely well by Julie Harris (Academy Award nominee, winner of five Tony awards, three Emmy awards, and a Grammy), while Theo is equally strongly played by renowned stage actress Claire Bloom.  

Watching the movie, is a fascinating experience, because from early on in the movie you're left feeling unsettled.  Cameras take strange angles, mirrors reflect scenes in peculiar ways, and shots are done so that the camera might lift or turn in a strange manner instead of simply moving in a straight line.

But as I said before, the key thing this movie has going for it is the subtlety it works in.  Scenes are paced slowly, allowing for character interaction and development.  There are a lot of large, scary moments that play out as psychologically terrifying more than shocking or gruesome (the standards of today's Hollywood), and a simple banging sound gets a lot more impact than most CG horror I've seen.

One of the most famous scenes is a very slow build-up moment of horror where Nell and Theo are sharing a bedroom (so that nobody's left alone and everybody is safe, you pervs, though you get the strong feeling Theo doesn't mind).  Nell hears chanting and cries from behind a wall across the room, and reaches out to take hold of Theo's hand so they can keep each other strong.  The voices get louder and louder before changing over to the sound of a child crying, leading Nell to decide that it's time to be brave and face what's making the noise more directly.  The payoff for the scene is extremely satisfying, and I won't spoil it here, but when you watch the movie it becomes one of the scenes that sticks in your head afterward.

There are so many great ways this movie instills a sense of uneasiness in the viewer besides simple camera angles.  Ceilings were put into frame in order to give rooms a sense of being claustrophobic, and rooms are packed with items to make them feel closed in.  Rooms almost appear to get more and more full of objects as the story continues, giving a real feeling that the house is closing in around people, trapping them inside.  Very few shots of rooms have any windows in them, leaving doubt as to what time it is or just how long people have been in this house.

The house itself is a genuine character in the movie, being relentless in the fear it spreads, but leaving just enough doubt in what it's actually doing to make you wonder if the characters are starting to snap.  Moments where Nell is alone witnessing things leave you wondering if maybe the house isn't actually doing anything right then, but that it's her own crumbling sanity that's terrorizing her.

It's not scary on the same level as The Exorcist or Alien, and it's not a gore-fest or CG ghost-filled adventure film disguised as horror like so many movies these days.  It's also not flat, allowing genuine character depth unlike, say, Devil Seed.  It's an expertly crafted thriller that I keep discovering more and more about each time I watch it.  For example, in multiple scenes, when Nell steps out of a room everyone else stands in, the room behind her goes pitch dark as the new room lights up.  Is the house separating her, or is her mind just not able to recognize the room as having been there any more as she gets lost in ever-growing madness?  I JUST NOTICED THIS, PEOPLE.

I advise everybody who likes to feel unsettled but not really "jump-scared" to watch this movie.  It's out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and honestly, who are you to argue with Martin Scorsese about what makes a quality horror film?

No comments: