Continuing with our 2nd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon, “the Unenthusiastic Critic”—my wise-assed, horror-hating girlfriend “N.”—joins me for a viewing of Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted house classic. As always, spoilers follow, so if (like my girlfriend) you haven’t already seen The Haunting, and if (unlike her) you would like to, you should really do that first.
What We Watched: The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise, written by Nelson Gidding (based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson). Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Johnson, and Lois Maxwell.
Why I Chose It: Director Robert Wise cut his teeth as an editor for the great Orson Welles, working on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. (The two men fell out when the studio had Wise make cuts to the latter film, against Welles’ wishes, but that’s another story.) As a director, Wise created some of the most successful American films of all time, including West Side Story and—the film that really scares my girlfriend—The Sound of Music. In between these two classic musicals, however, Wise adapted Shirley Jackson’s psychological ghost story The Haunting of Hill House, and the result—1963’s The Haunting—is, to me, the finest work of this extraordinary craftsman. If modern filmmakers want to learn how to generate terror—and how to do so without special effects, violence, monster makeup, or cheap scares—they should carefully study Wise’s classic (and classy) suspense masterpiece. The Haunting is perfect proof of the old adage that it’s what we don’t see that scares us.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: One of the filmmakers who never bothered to learn the “less is more” lesson is Hollywood hack Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister), who remade The Haunting in 1999 and completely missed the point of the original. Almost universally panned, de Bont’s version left nothing to the imagination: it was a bloated CGI monstrosity that traded all the psychological subtext and suggestive terror of the original for in-your-face special effects and animatronic statuary. It was one of the least scary horror movies ever made, and scored a half dozen nominations at that year’s “Razzie” awards, honoring the worst achievements in film.
This, naturally, is the version my girlfriend—unbeknownst to me—had chosen to watch shortly before we began this marathon.
Me: Wait, so you’ve seen the remake of The Haunting?
She: Yeah, it was on a couple of weeks ago.
Me: I don’t understand. I have to use chains and a bullwhip to get you to watch scary movies with me. But when I’m not around, you’re just watching them left and right, all higgledy piggledy?
She: No! There is neither higgledy nor piggledy. But I was flipping channels, and I saw Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, and I thought, “Oh, what’s this? I haven’t seen this…”
Me: I can’t believe you didn’t check with me first.
She: First of all, I don’t need to clear my movie watching with you.
Me: But you knew we were planning this movie marathon! So it’s kind of like buying presents for yourself right before your birthday or Christmas.
She: Actually, it’s nothing like that. At all. And, for the record, I’m allowed to do that as well.
Me: It’s just such an act of hostility, but fine. So what did you think of it?
She: It was HORRIBLE. So my verdict—we can already put it on the record—is that it’s garbage.
Me: The 1999 version is garbage. But why did you think it was garbage?
She: Despite the caliber of the actors in it, it was just bad. Catherine Zeta Jones is hot: that’s about all I can say for it. I don’t know how scared you can be when people are interacting with CGI cherubs and being attacked by living bedposts. So I’m not so excited about watching this again.
Me: How on earth can you pre-judge this movie from your experience with the shitty, shitty remake?
She: I’m just sayin’, I’ve already seen this story, and I didn’t enjoy it.
Me: But that was from the director of Speed.
She: And this is from the director of The Sound of Music! Which was an abomination. It was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a movie less.
Me: But well-directed.
She: No. Nor well-edited, because it should have been much, much shorter. So I don’t like the director. And I didn’t like the remake. Therefore, I’m not really sure why we have to do this dance: I’ve already decided The Haunting is not for me. I’m now watching a movie I didn’t like twice, and I don’t even get to look at Catherine Zeta Jones this time.
How It Went: Way better than the 1999 version, even without Catherine Zeta Jones.
So—unlike in the wretched remake—the flashiest special effect in The Haunting is in the title card. As a male narrator describes an “evil old house, the kind some people call haunted,” some swirling, ectoplasmic fog emerges over the image of a spooky manse and resolves itself into the title of the film.
She: Nice effect.
Me: Are you scared yet?
She: By the smoke title? Not quite.
The voice-over, we will come to realize, is by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist turned paranormal investigator. Dr. Markway explains that Hill House “was an evil house from the beginning. A house that was born bad.”
She: I didn’t realize a house could be born bad.
Me: Well, it was. Like George Thorogood.
She: Who the fuck is George Thorogood?
We’re here to discuss the film, but—before we proceed—I can’t resist a quick nod towards Shirley Jackson, the author of the novel The Haunting of Hill House. The movie’s narration cherry picks a few lines from the opening of the book, but they can’t possibly do total justice to what is—to me at least—one of the greatest first paragraphs in American literature.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” —from The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
Markway explains that the history of Hill House was one of “scandal, murder, insanity, suicide.” It was built by Hugh Crain for his wife and daughter, but his wife never saw it, dying in a carriage accident just before she laid eyes on the place. Crain remarried, we learn, but a second wife died even more mysteriously, in an unexplained fall down the stairs.
Right from these first shots, the visual style of The Haunting is remarkable and unsettling. Hill House itself is a masterpiece of Baroque set design: every inch of the interior is filled with rich, fascinating details, which Wise and director of photography David Boulton then paint with stark blacks and whites, brightly lighting certain surfaces and bathing the rest in absolute darkness.
The real genius of Wise’s work here, however, is in his composition and camera work. The house is often dark, but it is always a major presence in shots and it is never allowed to go out of focus: Wise—using many of the same deep-focus techniques he may have learned from Welles on Citizen Kane—ensures that the backgrounds are as clear as the foregrounds, and keeps the walls and ceilings always encroaching, insistently, on the characters.
We learn that Hugh’s daughter, little Abigail Crain, lived her entire life in the nursery: we see her lying in bed, reading her Bible, while she ages from a small child to an old woman in a seamless, seemingly unbroken shot.
She: Took her long enough to read the Bible, didn’t it?
As an old woman, Abigail died one night, neglected, while the companion hired to take care of her was fooling around with a man. (We see old Abigail futilely banging on her wall with her cane, to summon the companion—an act that will take on more significance later.) The companion then hanged herself from the spiral staircase in the library, and Hill House passed into the hands of a distant relative, Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton). Markway asks her for permission to conduct an investigation into paranormal phenomena at Hill House. She agrees, but she cautions him: “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
Markway explains to Mrs. Sanderson that he plans to bring along a special group of “carefully-selected assistants,” all of whom have had previous experience with the “abnormal.” This is how Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) comes into the story.
Eleanor—or “Nell”—is a timid, mousy woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her invalid mother. Now she lives with her bitchy sister and brother-in-law, who treat her like a child and charge her rent for space on the living room couch. (Even her 6-year-old niece is mean and patronizing to her, which prompts my girlfriend to say “Push the kid in the fire.”) But Nell has received Dr. Markway’s invitation, and when we first see her she is begging for use of the family car like a teen-ager.
“This is the first chance I’ve had for a vacation in my entire life,” Nell tells her sister, and in that line—and in the way Harris winces when she speaks, as though expecting a blow—we see the tremendous sadness and loneliness of this woman. Yet there is also an odd strength to her, as we’ll learn: there is timidity and longing, but there is also anger, and bitterness, and a selfish determination to eke some happiness out of her wretched life. (She steals the car, when her sister refuses to let her use it.) It’s a wonderfully complicated performance: Nell is the heart of the film, but she is not—necessarily—it’s hero.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had come out three years earlier, and I wonder if there is a deliberate echo of Marion Crane’s journey here in the scenes of Nell driving towards Hill House. In Psycho, Marion was legitimately on the lam—having stolen money from her company—but, in her own mind, Nell is every bit as much fugitive on the run. “By now they know the car is gone,” we hear her think. “They would never have suspected it of me. I would never have suspected it of myself. I’m a new person.” In reality, Nell has done nothing wrong—the car is half hers—but this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her, and we hear her fantasizing that somehow she is escaping forever.
She is momentarily thwarted at the gates of Hill House by the cranky caretaker, Mr. Dudley (Valentine Dyall), and we see again her brittle but surprising strength as she stands up to the man. (She almost runs him over as she drives through the gate, and laughs when he jumps.) And then Eleanor gets her first look at Hill House, and it takes her breath away.
“It’s staring at me,” she thinks. “It’s waiting for me. Evil, patient, waiting.” Wise’s camera follows Eleanor’s eyes as they look up at the darkened windows of Hill House: there is no movement there, there is no anything there, but already our imaginations are kicking in. We half-expect, and therefore halfway see, something moving within those windows.
The cranky Mr. Dudley has a creepy counterpart in Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley), who must be the least welcoming housekeeper since Mrs. Danvers. [Note: N. doesn’t know who Mrs. Danvers is yet, but we’ll get there soon…] Mrs. Dudley explains to Nell that she and her husband don’t stick around after dark: they live way over in town, so there will be no one to help the guests at night if they need it. “We couldn’t hear you,” she says. “In the night…No one could. No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that…In the night…In the dark.”
My girlfriend finds Mrs. Dudley less than comforting.
She: That’s creepy. She’s creepy.
Me: I’m sure it was in the job description. “Caretaker and housekeeper wanted. Married couple preferred. Must be creepy as fuck.”
She: I get the feeling something bad happens in the night…in the dark. And it’s a little weird to say that no one can hear you. That’s kind of an ominous thing to say, apropos of nothing.
Me: Wasn’t that your issue with going to remote locations? Like cabins in the woods?
She: Yes. It’s very important to me to be heard, if I should decide to scream, in the night…in the dark…
Nell goes through the shared bathroom off her bedroom just in time to hear Mrs. Dudley giving the same spooky spiel to another of Dr. Markway’s guests, Theodora, a woman who seems, in every way, to be Nell’s exact opposite: dark where Nell is fair, beautiful where Nell is plain, confident where Nell is self-conscious. “We’re going to be just like sisters,” Theo says.
She: She’s no Catherine Zeta Jones.
Me: Bitch, that’s Claire Bloom! Catherine Zeta Jones wishes she were as hot as Claire Bloom.
She: Who the fuck is Claire Bloom?
Nell and Theo make their way down a ridiculously dark corridor, looking for the dining room, and we begin to see just how the haunting in The Haunting will work: apart from a slight draft, we see nothing on screen, but the way the two women react to the house makes us know that something is happening: they feel a chill, they feel a presence. “The house, it’s alive!” Nell says. It’s just a dark hallway, but our imagination—much more powerful than any computer-generated effects could be—fills in the rest. “It wants you, Nell,” Theo whispers. “The house is calling you.” How much of it is in their imaginations—particularly Nell’s, since she seems both terrified and thrilled by the possibility of being singled out—is left for us to decide.
Markway finds them, and they join him in the dining room, along with the fourth and final guest: Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the ne’er-do-well nephew of the old woman. Luke will inherit Hill House one day, and sees the place as nothing more than an investment to be protected.
Tamblyn, of course, had previously played Riff in Wise’s film of West Side Story.
She: Is that a Jet?
Me: He was a Jet, yes.
She: Well, when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way…
Luke starts serving up the drinks, but buttoned-down Nell doesn’t partake.
She: “I don’t drink, because I’m already crazy!”
Me: That’s way harsh.
She: Nell came in on 10, is what I’m saying. Crazy to the power of 10.
Over dinner, Dr. Markway reveals why Nell and Theo were invited. Theo—as she has already hinted by seeming to guess an awful lot about Nell—is psychic. Nell denies that she has ever had anything to do with the supernatural, but Markway says there was a documented “poltergeist” incident in her past: when she was a child, a shower of rocks fell on her house for three days.
“It never happened!” Nell protests, but then starts to freak out. “That was the neighbors! They threw the rocks! Mother says they were always against us, because she wouldn’t mix with them! Mother says…”
She: She just went up to 11.
Me: “Mother says they’re all going to laugh at me! Mother says she can see my dirty pillows!”
Nell apologizes for her outburst, explaining that her mother died recently. “You weren’t sorry,” Theo says. (The novel puts it more directly. The second sentence used to describe Eleanor is this one: “The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.”)
(One of the things left marvelously ambiguous in The Haunting is whether anything that happens is, directly, Nell’s fault: there is a suggestion—just a suggestion—that Nell may have what Dr. Markway refers to in passing as “psychokinesis,” or the ability to move things with her mind. We never see her do this, or see any direct reference to this possibility, but there are hints. In addition to the hail of stones that fell on her house when she was 10—a detail Stephen King borrowed for the novel Carrie—Nell says something very odd to her hated sister early in The Haunting: “Get out of here before you see what my nerves can really do,” she says. I think it’s too simple to say it might all be Nell’s doing—strange things were happening in Hill House long before Nell ever heard of it—but there is definitely a suggestion that what happens here is the result of this very odd, lonely woman moving into this very odd, empty house, and that Nell may be subconsciously causing certain things to happen.)
After dinner, the four of them retire for the night. Theo lingers outside Nell’s door. “If you feel the least bit nervous,” she says, “just run right into my room, Nell.”
She: If it was Catherine Zeta Jones, I’d take her up on that.
Theo’s homosexuality is another interesting river of subtext churning away just barely beneath the surface of The Haunting; the film is neither coy nor overt about it. (We learn later that she is not married but lives with a “friend,” gender undetermined.) It is treated with remarkable openness—given the era—and even remarkable acceptance: Nell senses it, and will be bitchy about it later, but I read this as more an expression of how emotionally closed-off Nell is, rather than any real bigotry. Theo is Nell’s opposite, and the example of Theo’s open, unashamed sexuality is simply a threat to Nell’s emotionally buttoned-down existence. (That Theo survives the movie in good health—unlike most other lesbian characters in films of the era—is further evidence that there is no real judgment in The Haunting.)
That very first night, the festivities begin: Nell is awakened by a pounding on the walls, which—in her half-asleep state—she mistakes for her invalid mother, banging on the wall to summon her. When Theo screams from the next room, however, Nell runs in, and the two of them huddle in fear as the sound gets louder, and closer.
The sound design is extremely effective here—the pounding on the walls of Hill House is loud and startling and just slightly other-worldly—but it is Wise’s camera work that really sells the scares. He sweeps the camera’s eye across the walls, as though following the movement of whatever is pacing just outside in the hallway, and then zooms in on the door when the banging reaches it. Again, there is no movement—we see nothing out of the ordinary—but the urgent motion of the camera creates dynamic action and a sense of imminent threat out of nothing. As the pounding on the door becomes impossibly loud, the camera moves slowly all around the door frame, as though seeking a way into the bedroom. The eye of the camera is ours, but the motion of the camera is the ghost.
We see once again in this scene that timid Nell is not so timid after all, and Theo is not so strong: it is Nell who goes to the door to demand that whatever is there go away, and it’s Theo who huddles cowering in the bed. There is also—if you’re inclined to explore it—a furthering of the sexual sub-text here, which Wise acknowledges with his camera but does not dwell upon: Nell is at the door, and the camera briefly switches to her point-of-view, as she gazes back at the very fetching Theo lying in the bed. With this quick shot—in which it seems as though Nell is the ghost, standing in the doorway, gazing at Theo—Wise seems to be confirming that one way to read the haunting of Hill House is as an expression of Nell’s loneliness, longing, and repressed sexuality.
The following morning, over her breakfast with Dr. Markway, we learn a little more about just how pinched and thwarted Nell’s life has been. She confesses that she sleeps on her left side, because she read somewhere that it wears the heart out faster. “For the past 11 years I’ve been walled up on a desert island,” she says, describing how she was trapped caring for her mother. “The only thing that kept me going was that someday I knew something would happen, something truly extraordinary, like Hill House.” She admits that she has always been more afraid of “being left out, or of being alone, than of things that go bump in the night.” (Theo, in what can only be a pointed comment directed at Nell, says her greatest fear is “knowing what I really want.”)
Outside the dining room, they discover that something—or someone—has written on the wall in chalk. HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. “It’s my name, it belongs to me!” Eleanor protests. “It knows my name, it’s calling me out using my own name!” Eleanor thinks Theo has written it as a joke: Theo thinks Eleanor has written it herself to get attention. “Why should I be singled out?” Eleanor asks—but Eleanor, of course, has been longing to be singled out, to be special, to be chosen.
That morning they conduct a further tour of the house, and come across a creepy statue: it is supposed to be Saint Francis curing the lepers, but Luke decides it’s a family portrait: Hugh Crain with his wives, his daughter, and the companion. Theo decides it’s a portrait of them, with Nell in the role of the companion who let the old woman die and then hanged herself. Theo goads Nell into dancing with the statue, and a gust of wind throws the door open. “He moved!” Nell says, of the statue. “Of course,” Theo jokes. “Haven’t you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move, until you look away, and then you catch something out of the corner of your eye?”
Me: They’re Weeping Angels! This explains everything!
She: Don’t blink. Don’t even blink.
Wise’s camera, of course, lingers on the statue just long enough for us to wonder if we did see it move.
The next stop on the tour is the library, which features the tall spiral staircase from which the companion hanged herself. Luke climbs it, but the rickety old staircase pulls away from the wall and threatens to collapse under his weight.
She: That is not structurally sound.
Nell wanders out on a balcony, and stares up at the highest windows, thinking about the companion who killed herself; again, we don’t see anything in those windows, but it is easy to imagine we do, and the camera’s eye suddenly rushes down on her as she almost falls over the railing. “This house,” she says to Markway, who gallantly saves her. “You have to watch it every minute.” But Markway is increasingly concerned that the house has made Nell nervous and unstable. “If even one event was proved to be an hallucination, then this whole experiment would be questioned.” He talks of sending Nell away, but she begs to stay.
Markway reluctantly agrees, but doesn’t think Nell should be alone. “I think you should move in with Eleanor,” he says to Theo, who—needless to say—readily agrees.
She: Bow chicka wow wow…
That evening—after Theo gets Nell a little liquored up at their slumber party—Markway discovers an unexplained cold spot outside the door to the nursery, where Abigail spent her entire life: he says the nursery is “the cold heart of Hill House.” Later that night, after they’ve gone to sleep, Nell wakes up and finds herself staring at the pattern on the wall. It’s another one of those fantastic shots that help us—almost instruct us—to scare ourselves, as Nell is doing, simply by looking too closely at the architecture of the house.
There is a childish giggling sound—or is it crying?—and Nell—alone in the blackness, just her face illuminated—reaches out for Theo’s hand. “I will not let anyone hurt a child,” Nell thinks. As the sounds increase, and the tension builds, Nell complains that Theo is holding her hand too tightly. “Theo, you’re breaking my hand!”
She finally screams, and when she does the light clicks on to show that Theo is way on the other side of the room. “Whose hand was I holding?” Nell shrieks.
The following day, Eleanor finally opens up to Dr. Markway—at whom she has been looking with increased longing—about her mother’s death. Her mother—like old Abigail Crain—had banged on the wall for her, and on the night she died Eleanor didn’t come to help her. “You’re human,” Markway assures her. “Stop trying to be a saint or a martyr.” But Eleanor doesn’t really know how to be human: she’s never had the chance. “All I want is to be cherished,” she thinks, looking at Markway.
Wise emphasizes Eleanor’s sexual repression here, by cutting from this scene immediately to Luke. “Lust!” Luke says, reading from a horrible instruction manual about sin that Hugh Crain prepared for his daughter. Theo, too, has noticed the way Nell is looking at Markway, and begins teasing her mercilessly about it until Nell explodes. “You’re a monster, Theo! You’re the monster of Hill House!” Theo tells her she’s making a fool out of herself, and being stupid and innocent. “I’d rather be innocent than like you,” Nell snaps. “The world is full of inconsistencies. Unnatural things, nature’s mistakes. Like you, for instance.”
She: That was homophobic.
Me: Umm…Maybe she meant Theo is unnatural because she’s psychic?
She: I don’t think that’s what she meant.
Just when Nell’s romantic urges are rising to the surface, she is further thwarted: Dr. Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) arrives. Grace doesn’t believe in ghosts, doesn’t approve of her husband’s experiments, and doesn’t take any of them seriously.
Nell—showing a sadistic, vindictive streak previously unseen—suggests that Grace might like to sleep in the nursery. Markway protests, but Grace is delighted by the idea.
With the nursery—the cold heart of the house—finally breached, Hill House really comes to life: that night the pounding sound returns, moving all over the house. From where they huddle together downstairs, the other four guests stare as the closed door to their room swells and bends inward, as though someone were pushing on the other side. (This scene—which was achieved by building a rubber door—is the only real moment when we see something unequivocally supernatural happen.)
“It knows I’m here!” Eleanor thinks.
Me: Oh, it’s all about her. She’s so conceited. Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor.
They then hear the banging sound move towards Mrs. Markway in the nursery. When they investigate, they discover Grace is gone.
Eleanor is terrified, but there is something else at work here as well: she’s jealous. She had been singled out by the house—chosen, for the first time in her life—but now Mrs. Markway has been taken. “I’ll come,” she thinks. “I’ll come. Whatever it wants of me it can have.”
She goes off by herself to search for Grace, moving through the blackness of Hill House. “I’m disappearing, inch by inch, into this house,” she thinks. She finds herself in the room with the statue. “We killed her, you and I, Hugh Crain,” she thinks, and she dances again with the statue in a dreamy, spooky trance.
“I want to stay here forever,” she thinks. “I’m home, I’m home, I’m home, I’m home.”
She: She’s gone ’round the bend.
And indeed, Nell has finally—and more or less completely—snapped. The climax of the film comes when the others discover Nell in the library, climbing the stairs up to the landing where the companion had hanged herself.
Dr. Markway follows her up the rickety, treacherous staircase, and reaches her just at the top, grabbing her right before she falls over the railing. As they start to head back down, we get what is really the only jump-scare in the film: Mrs. Markway’s tortured face appears from behind a panel in the rafters.
She has, seemingly, been swallowed by the house, as Nell herself both feared and longed to be.
The others—not completely believing that Nell saw Grace—have decided Nell has had enough: they pack her up and get ready to take her away from Hill House, but she begs to stay. “It isn’t fair. I’m the one who is supposed to stay here. She’s taken my place!…Don’t you understand? The house wants me! Mrs. Markway can’t satisfy it. No one else can!” Pathetically, she says, as they escort her out, “Nothing else has ever happened to me.”
They put Nell in the car; Luke is going with her, but—in a key moment—she refuses to let him drive the car. The car began as the symbol of her independence, of her agency, and it still is: she is standing up for herself, for her right to decide her own fate. “They can’t make me leave. They can’t shut me out. Not if Hill House means me to stay.” She closes the door and drives away without Luke, charging down the long, winding driveway, and seems to fight with the steering wheel. Is she fighting to stay, or to get away? Either way, she thinks—with an expression of near ecstasy on her face—“Something, at last, is really, really happening to me.”
The white-clad figure of Mrs. Markway appears suddenly in the headlights ahead, and Eleanor’s car swerves and crashes into a tree—the same tree, of course, where the first Mrs. Crain died all those many years ago. The others run down the drive to find her dead. “Eleanor did it to herself,” Luke says, but the question of whether that’s true is left ambiguous. Markway says something was in the car with her, something she wasn’t strong enough to resist. “It was what she wanted, to stay here,” Theo says. “The house belongs to her now, too. Maybe she’s happier.” Markway goes back into the house: the others protest, but he says it’s safe. “The house has what it wants. For a while.”
The film ends with a shot of the haunted house, and—as the novel ends—with a reprise of the opening lines. But this time, it is Eleanor’s voice we hear. She has, at last, become part of the house:
“Hill House has stood for ninety years, and might stand for ninety more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lays steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and we who walk there, walk alone.”
The dirty little secret at the heart of the “Unenthusiastic Critic” series is that my girlfriend does not always have a great deal to say about some of the films we watch.
This should not, in retrospect, be surprising: she is not a critic, a professional comedian, or a trained seal, and so taking part in these blog posts is already above and beyond the call of duty. Also, by definition and design, N. is decidedly unenthusiastic about watching these movies: that’s the whole point. Sometimes that fundamental lack of enthusiasm expresses itself as highly vocalized hostility—which we all enjoy—but at other times it expresses itself passively in relative silence.
Ironically, it’s often the movies she kind of likes—or at least the ones she doesn’t completely hate—that inspire the least response: (God forbid she actually just sits back and gets caught up in watching the movie. That is not what I’m [not] paying her for.)
As you may have noticed, this was one of those times. If we’d watched the new version of The Haunting, Ihave no doubt that N. could have kept up a constant, caustic stream of commentary. But with this version, she mostly just sat back and enjoyed it. (Damn her.) But we did have a brief conversation about it afterwards.
Me: So what’d you think?
She: It was fine. It was good.
Me: Better than the remake?
She: Yes. Much. It was much more of an atmospheric horror movie than anything else. And I liked the way it was shot, playing off all the layers in the house, with the shadows and the camera angles. It had a very Hitchcocky kind of vibe.
Me: I don’t remember the remake very well, but don’t they show everything very literally?
She: Yes. The statues move, and there’s a painting of Hugh Crain that comes alive, and the whole house is anthropomorphized. Owen Wilson gets his head crushed when the fireplace—which is shaped like a lion’s head—comes alive.
Me: Oh God, I think I do remember that. So this was scarier?
She: It was. It was scary in the way that anything you can’t see too well is scary. And if you look at something a little too long, you start asking, Are there eyes there? Is something moving? And it was really interestingly filmed: it does look a lot like Citizen Kane. That shot with the different angles on the doorway was really cool.
Me: I love the way he uses the camera. You don’t see anything—there’s no ghost, there’s no anything—but the camera implies motion, and creates tension, to the point where you’re not even sure whether you’ve seen something or not. It’s very cleverly done.
She: Right, you hype yourself up, and fill in the blanks.
Me: So does it redeem Robert Wise for The Sound of Music in your eyes?
She: No, there’s no coming back from that. He’s going to have to answer for that one on the other side.
Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic: Our Halloween marathon continues—and nearly comes to a crashing halt—as N. experiences for the first time the glories of 1985’s Re-Animator.