The Haunting

Gamestyle Archive intro: did you realise that the site used to have a dedicated DVD review section? It only lasted a couple of years. From memory Darran wanted to cover the medium and it seemed a logical extension with the PlayStation 2 arriving in homes, thereby opening up this new format; bye bye VHS. While the section itself wasn’t long running we often did review films/DVDs that were influenced by videogames including some awful ones later in the decade by a certain German director.

Writer: JJ

Published: January 2004


Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

Genre: Thriller

Length: 107 minutes

As a kid staying up late and watching video nasties and edited horror films (on terrestrial television) was a common activity for this Gamestyle writer.  Few films made any lasting impression, as gore and violence soon became repetitive.  However The Haunting was one film that refused to date and lose any of its atmosphere or ability to shock.  Given its lack of release on video or DVD until recently, the film has enjoyed “cult” status amongst those who appreciate well-crafted films.  Only through late night showings has this appreciation continued to grow, with finally Metro Goldwyn-Mayer finally releasing the film on DVD.

The script is fairly faithful to the book (The Haunting of Hill House) that the film is based upon – with a few liberties, here and there.  The initial premise will not win any prizes for originality as it involves a group of hand picked individuals (led by Dr John Markway) who conduct a paranormal investigation into Hill House, which remains unoccupied during nightfall.  The sceptics amongst the group soon begin to doubt their own senses, as a series of bizarre events take place.  Rather than let the spirits within the house embark on a rampage, Wise instead builds the relationships with the main characters.  The paranormal (for what they are) remain unseen, and in this, allows your imagination to run riot.

The 1999 big budget remake decided to explore other avenues within the house, but ultimately even modern special effects could not equal the standard of the original.  The 1963 version only has one noticeable special effect shot, while the rest of the film uses silence and thunderous noise to build tension.  This has increased the eternal and undated nature of the film.  Sitting in a darkened living room there is no film that comes close.  Upon its theatrical release in the UK the film was well received, but endured an X certificate.  To some The Haunting is pure psychological horror, to others a severe thriller with moments of unadulterated terror.

The main star of the film is the house itself, which does exist just outside of London, and yes is apparently haunted in real life – one cast member even recalls his own paranormal experience on set.  No doubt the cast were fully aware of the history and nearby graveyard, which added more focus to some memorable performances.  The assortment of relatively unknown actors and actresses’ works well, as there is no star complex among them.  And the small cast gets on with developing the story.

Robert Wise for those unaware was the editor on Orson Welles’ magical Citizen Kane, and such editing skills were used extremely efficiently in The Haunting.  For a film created in 1963 it features a variety of disorientating angles and sure fire edits, these help create the unnatural feeling of an unusual house.  Trivia fans will be surprised to know that after directing this tour de force, Wise went onto direct The Sound Of Music as his next project.

Unfortunately the print used for the DVD does not seem to be as clean as others seen on television.  At times the print does show its age, and more importantly the lack of any real enhancement when making its debut on DVD.  This is not a major downfall, but rather a blemish on a beautifully composed film, which surely deserved better treatment, as Wise enjoys exploiting every inch of frame at his disposal.  The minimal soundtrack (mostly reliant on sound effects) has forgone any Dolby Digital enhancement.  Perhaps a remixed version would have been at odds with the film itself, as both rely on one another greatly.

On the extras front The Haunting ignores any special edition status, and unsurprisingly little effort has been done for this budget release. The gallery of small stills shows the cast and crew during filming, while the theatrical trailer delivers a cringe worthy punch line.    Thankfully some credence has been given to delivering this DVD as a historical document, as MGM has included a commentary track.  This features the cast, writer and director in an accompanying edited track, which proves extremely interesting.  Of particular note are Wise who explains some of his thoughts and techniques, while Johnson provides an insight into the experiences of the actors.  For a budget release it’s a saving grace to have a commentary such as this – something Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was sorely lacking.

The Haunting is a welcome release on DVD, with the strength of the film still shining brightly forty years on.  An influential film that deserves to reach a wider audience why not cast aside those Scary Movies and try out one of the originals?

Gamestyle Score: 8/10