In 1961, Robert Wise was finishing up post-production on West Side Story, when he happened upon a review of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in Time magazine. Intrigued, he sought out a copy of the book and upon reading decided he must bring it to the big screen.
He spent some time talking to the author and had soon optioned the rights to adapt the novel as a film.
It has been said that during their conversations, he asked if she had ever thought of a different title for the novel, and she replied that the only other title she’d ever considered was simply The Haunting.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Wise brought the novel to screenwriter Nelson Gidding who soon found himself crafting what would become one of the greatest haunted house films ever created.
I’ve wanted to write about this film for this series since I started writing about Horror in Black and White a few weeks ago, and today felt like the day.
You see, Robert Wise, rightly, decided that black and white was the perfect medium for this particular story because the monochromatic look would enhance the depth of the shadows and increase the tension of the psychological elements of the story.
When you’re right, you’re right.
For the uninitiated or for those only familiar with the more recent Netflix adaptation, Wise’s film told the story of Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) who, in an attempt to study the paranormal, invites psychically sensitive Nell (Julie Harris) and fully clairvoyant Theodora (Claire Bloom) to spend a weekend at Hill House.
It is said the house is one of the most haunted in the world, and Markway hopes that the gifted women will stir the spirits of the house to present themselves.
Along for the ride are Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit the house, and Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell). The latter turns up unannounced and fully in doubt of her husband’s work.
The house is soon alive with echoing booming sounds in the night, and timid, mousy Nell, who wasn’t wholly stable to begin with, soon finds herself the focal point of an increasingly dangerous haunting.
Harris is vulnerable and raw as Nell. While filming, she kept herself isolated from the rest of the cast, rarely joining them for dinner or to chat during filming breaks.
Apocryphally, it has been said that she suffered terrible depression during the shoot, but Claire Bloom later recounted that Harris turned up at her home bearing gifts and an explanation for her behavior.
Bloom had been worried that Harris kept her distance because the character of Theo was a lesbian. In fact, it was this particular part of the character is what drew Bloom to the role.
By the 60s, the film industry had begun to loosen some of the stringent requirements of its past, and queer-coding, though still alive and well, was giving way to queer characters–though their portrayals were still problematic.
Theo was an exception. While certainly coded in some respects, she was not in any way what had been presented previously. She was not a “hard” woman, nor was she predatory.
On the contrary, she was a lovely, sophisticated woman, and while her sexuality is only hinted at throughout the film, it’s hard to deny who she is when Nell, in a fit of rage calls her one of “nature’s mistakes.” The epithet was a common term at the time.
It’s interesting to note that in an early version of the film there was a scene which involved a recent breakup of Theo’s. Wise went so far as to film the scene, but unfortunately he was forced to cut it.
Harris and Bloom were phenomenal in their respective roles and the rest of the cast was equally good, but the true star of the show was house itself, and the ways in which it seemed to come alive. Much of that has to do with Wise’s direction.
With sound and shadow, he created a terrifying claustrophobic environment without ever actually revealing the spirits of Hill House. In fact, it is incredible just how well those two elements work together in this film.
The shadows seem to elongate and move while deafening sounds from the heart of the house itself unsettle the viewer as much as the actors onscreen.
Furthermore, Wise used lenses that gave a curved appearance to the walls, creating an even more unsettling skewed view of the sets.
The film opened to mixed reviews and an average box office for the time, but its popularity has grown over the years with a devoted fan base.
The film was later remade in the late 90s starring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson, but it lacked the spark of the original.
The Haunting is available for streaming via Vudu and other platforms. Check out the trailer below and for more Horror in Black and White, check out our other entries including Cat People and Strait-Jacket!