Ive had any number of people over the years say to me, “You know, Mr. Wise, you made the scariest picture Ive ever seen and you never showed anything. Howd you do it?” And it goes back to Val Lewton, by the powers of suggestion.
Robert Wise in Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career
When I first saw the preview for Jan de Bonts 1999 production of The Haunting, I was both skeptical and excited. Why, I thought, would anyone tamper with a film (directed by Robert Wise in 1963 and a film I still consider to be one of my favorites) as compelling as the original? At the same time, I was excited by the possibility that, in this more liberal day and age, many of the complexities of Shirley Jacksons novel would finally find their way to the big screen. And so, it was with mixed feelings that I anticipated the release of this high-tech, big-budget extravaganza.
Not surprisingly, although much to my dismay, I saw the film and was greatly disappointed. Then again, the film (according to its producers) was never intended to be a remake. With a cache of special effects technology in hand, executive producer Steven Spielberg felt the need “travel the road not taken by Wise” and “deliver the goods for modern audiences.” 1
Spielberg isnt alone in his belief that modern audiences are waiting for “the goods” to be delivered. Stephen King, although he admires the Wise film, has also commented on the lack of a monster: “Something is scratching at that ornate, paneled door,” writes King, “something horrible...but it is a door Wise elects never to open.” King acknowledges his disapproval of this method, the decision to “let the door bulge but...never open it,” a tactic King refers to as “playing to tie rather than to win.” 2
Spielberg and de Bont do open the door and all manner of computer-generated ghosts and goblins come flying over the threshold. Unfortunately, the story also took the nearest exit and left us with a film that, more than anything, highlights the prowess of Wises filmmaking and reinforces my belief that the key to supernatural storytellingwhether on-screen or on the pageis the power of suggestion.
The complexity of Robert Wises filmmaking, his attention to detail and his incredible skill as a storyteller, editor, cinematographer and director, are exemplary. It is this complexity that raises Wises films from the level of the works of a skilled craftsmanthe director who worked his way up from the mail room, so to speakto the oevres of a artisan of the highest level.
Wise was among the last of directors to be brought up through the studio system. He began his work in Hollywood as a film porter whose responsibility it was to carry prints up to the projection booth for the executives to watch and to check them afterward for damage. From there, Wise moved on first to sound editing, story editing and film editing before trying his hand at directing. At various stages in his career, Wise worked with a variety of directors, not the least of whom were Orson Welles and Garson Kanin. In addition to his work with some of the most notable directors in Hollywood history, Wise also excelled in the field. Altogether, his films have been nominated for 67 Academy Awards and 19 Oscars. Wise himself was nominated for seven Academy Awards, eventually winning four Oscars, two each for West Side Story and Sound of Music.
It was during the final stages of the production of West Side Story that Wise, inspired by a favorable review, picked up a copy of Shirley Jacksons The Haunting of Hill House. In an interview Wise recalled, “I was reading one of the very scary passageshackles were going up and down my neckwhen Nelson Gidding [the screenwriter]...burst through the door to ask me a question. I literally jumped about three feet out of my chair. I said, ‘If it can do that to me sitting and reading, it ought to be something I want to make a picture out of.” 3 And make a picture he did.
Jacksons novel reminded Wise of his early days with producer Val Lewton and Lewtons brand of psychological horror. Lewton was hired by RKO in 1942 to produce a series of low-budget psychological thrillers. He set the tone for his new series with Cat People (1942), followed by I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). With these films, Lewton established a standard for “literate and subtle explorations into mans fear of the unknown.” 4 Wise cut his directorial teeth on Lewton productions. His first opportunity to direct came when he was chosen to replace Gunther von Fritsch, the original director of The Curse of the Cat People half way through filming.
Wise had long wanted to make a film in honor of his mentor and Jacksons novel seemed the perfect vehicle. Lewtons distinct style and how it influenced those who worked with him is aptly described by Edmund G. Bansak in Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career:
Lewton trademarksthe reverence for the underdog, the focus upon humanist concerns, the alliance between danger and darkness, the depiction of fate as an unstoppable force, and, of course, the preoccupation with things unseen permeate the postwar films of all three directors. In addition, other Lewton film characteristics, those of content (negative forces, doomed characters, ambiguity, paranoia, deception, predestination, nihilism, death) and of form (expressionistic interplay of light and dark, meticulous multilayered soundtracks, literate scripts, dynamic compositions, understated performances), seemed to have filtered into the respective works of Tourneur, Robson, and Wise. 5
There is a lot of resonance between Lewtons work and Jacksons style of psychological suspense. Jack Sullivan in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural writes:
[T]he depiction of intense loneliness and mental disturbance in an ambiguously supernatural context became Jacksons trademark. Reversing M.R. Jamess dictum that a ghost story should leave a narrow “loophole” for a natural explanation, Jackson wrote stories of psychological anguish that leave a loophole for a supernatural explanation. The supernatural is a final dark corner in the desolate room where Jacksons isolated protagonists, usually women, find themselves. 6
In The Haunting of Hill House, we see many qualities reminiscent of Lewtons characteristic style, not the least of which are the aforementioned “negative forces, doomed characters, ambiguity, paranoia, deception, predestination, nihilism, and death.” Jackson, however, was rather more misanthropic than Lewton. There is no underdog in Jacksons novel, despite the use of Eleanor as a point of view character, and Jacksons characterizations focuses more upon human frailties than humanistic concerns.
Taking advantage of the similarities in tone and atmosphere between Jackson and Lewton, Wise deliberately developed the characters in a more Lewtonesque style. Despite the differences in plot development and characterization, Wise managed to create a Lewton homage that was also faithful to Jacksons novel. Nelson Gidding, who wrote the screenplay for The Haunting, says of Wise, “He is a storyteller par excellence; one who translates into purely cinematic terms the stories of others that he makes his own.” 7 Jackson was apparently pleased with the results, feeling that “the movie retained the original atmosphere of the book.” 8
Although Jacksons characters are all misfits, each very self-centered in his or her own way, Wise and Gidding choose to emphasize Eleanors outcast qualities, giving her a sympathetic edge and thereby creating the “underdog” of Lewton fame. Theo, a lesbian in both the novel and the movie, is given more of an edge in the film, becoming a foil for Eleanor and further establishing Eleanors status as a persecuted innocent. Luke becomes less brooding and more carefree, while Dr. Markway (Dr. Montague in the novel) is much less self-conscious about his outsider status within scholarly circles as a research scientist primarily interested in the paranormal.
The house, described in the novel as “diseased” and “not sane,” remains essentially the same. Hill House, we are told, is not merely haunted. It is the haunt. In addition to its history of death, decay and suicide, Hill House is visually disorienting to the beholder. “It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions,” writes Jackson, “so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible length.” 9 Wise (who was shooting the film in Panavision) called the president of Panavision in search of a wider-angle lens than was commercially available at the time. “We have developed a 30mm, but its not ready for use yet,” was the reply. “Its got a lot of distortion in it.” 10 Wise immediately accepted it. The distortion resulting from this prototype lens helped to create the atmosphere of Hill House. In Wises words, “I want[ed] the house to look almost alive.” It is the awareness of this house as a living, breathing entity that establishes the atmosphere of the rest of the film.
The film opens with a long shot of Hill House. The houseactually a 700-year-old manor not far from Stratford-Upon-Avon, Englandwas, in Wises words, “a pretty horrifying-looking thing,” 11 a look Wise accentuated with the use of infra-red film. “An evil old house, the kind some people called haunted,” begins the voice-over, “is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.” With these words and the discordant accompaniment of brass and cymbals, the viewer is introduced to the tainted history of Hill House and the disorientation begins.
Wise is a master filmmaker, and his unique and dynamic style is apparent from the beginning. From the victims eye-view of the upset carriage that killed Hugh Craines first wife, her hand falling lifeless across the screen, to the tumbling camerawork that gives us the vision of his second wifes final moments, to the visual descent of the spiral staircase after the companions suicide, Wise establishes the camera itself as the primary tool in his cache of special effects.
The narrative voice of the opening montage, we discover, is Dr. Markway himself. Markway is discussing his desire to rent Hill House with Mrs. Sannerson and her lawyer. Once Mrs. Sannerson accedes to giving Mr. Markway his lease, we are shown a shot of Markway working on a shortlist of names, people who have “all been involved before, in one way or another, with the abnormal.” With Markways checkmark next to the name of Eleanor Lance, we are introduced to our point of view character for the rest of the film.
The argument between Eleanor, her sister and her brother-in-law is as jarring as the rather saccharine, carnivalesque music that accompanies the scene. It is only when Eleanor banishes the others from her “bedroom” and suddenly stops the music by removing the needle from the record that we realize that the music is not incidental. The music exists in stark contrast to the rather disconcerting family dynamics and to Eleanors shift in tone from begging for the use of the car to her angry outburst at the entire family. This use of a multi-layered soundtrackdialogue over music or multiple tracks of dialogue at any given momentis very characteristic of Val Lewton and a technique Wise uses to great effect.
When Eleanor takes the car without permission, we are introduced to Eleanors inner worldher fantasies, her hopes, her desiresand she is established as our narrative voice throughout the rest of the film. She is desperate, and we experience the first faint twinges of desperation on her behalf. She surprises us, however, with a rather aggressive action that belies her otherwise passive and desperate demeanor by gunning the engine after Mr. Dudley finally opens the gates and allows her entrance onto the grounds of Hill House. “You seem to be the one whos afraid,” she says with a giggle.
Eleanors first view of the house is as disconcerting to the viewer as it is to Eleanor. Several quick edits between differing angles of the house and Eleanors face establish not only discontinuity for the viewer (are we looking at Eleanor or at the house?), but also for Eleanor. “Its staring at me,” she says. And, by way of Wises editing, we know that it is.
This sense that the house is watching Nell is reinforced by Wises excellent camera work. As she bends to pick up her suitcase, she sees her own image reflected in the polished wood floor. As she follows Mrs. Dudley up the stairs, she is again startled by her own image, this time reflected in an unexpected mirror on the wall half-way up the stairs. Eleanors reference to being “scared of your own shadow” is apt as it Eleanor who lives in constant fear of her shadow self, the one who may or may not have chosen to let her mother die only two months earlier.
The repetition of eyes, faces, and reflectionssubtle images worked into scenes by Wisereinforce the feeling that Eleanor, indeed everyone, is being watched. From the momentary flash of the fishs eye that cuts from the before dinner drinks to the dinner scene, to the plethora of faces that appear in Theos room when she and Eleanor are hovering in fear from the noise in the hall (in the opening sequence, Wise superimposes a cherubs face over the stairway; Eleanor watches her and Theos reflection in a mirror across from the bed; the door knobin the shape of a cherubs facebeing turned by some unseen source, the gargoyle on the wall), the imagery is constantly reinforcing the feeling that the house is watching every step, every movement, every breath.
Mrs. Dudleya grand dame of the housekeeping tradition on par with the unforgettable Mrs. Danvers of Rebeccaushers Eleanor into her room. “Im like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, and the monster feels my tiny movements inside,” Eleanor intones as the camera swallows her in a sweeping shot beginning at the ceiling and looking down at the awkward Eleanor encircling her as it moves down and across, sweeping back to shoot Eleanor from underneath. She has been swallowed, completely engulfed by the house. The use of overhead shots and the frequent use of those shot in scenes with Eleanor strengthen our perception of Eleanor as the object of the housesand of the viewersgaze.
This connection between Eleanor and Hill house is further reinforced in a scene moments later when Eleanor and Theo are lost in the maze-like hallways of Hill House. Eleanor feels a presence, one Theo isnt aware of until, perhaps able to sense Eleanors awareness by virtue of her ESP, Eleanor calls attention to it. “It wants you, Nell,” says Theo, “The house is calling you.” Every step of the way, Wise makes us aware of Eleanors kinship with the house, even if the viewer isnt consciously aware of the careful manipulation of story, sound, and point of view shots to establish this kinship.
The viewers identification with Eleanor is built through Wises construction of Eleanor as the underdog of the film. It is clear from the moment Eleanor enters Theos room for the first time that she is out of her league. Claire Bloom as Theodora, complete in fashions by Mary Quant, is a cut above the average, a stylish, worldly and accomplished woman in stark contrast to the shy, mousy, and sheltered Eleanor. This contrast is reinforced by Eleanors often humorous but self-deprecating remarks such as “Its Theo whos wearing velvet, so I must be Eleanor in tweed.”
Theos hostility begins at the first signs of affinity between Dr. Markway and Eleanor. Markways kind words yet innocent words to Eleanor are met with sour looks and harsh tones from Theo. This hostility becomes more and more pronounced as the story develops. Is Theo jealous of Markways attention to Eleanor? Does she want to be the center of attention, or does she resent the deflection of Eleanors attention from her to Markway? Or is it a disdainful pity she belies as she witnesses Eleanors growing devotion to a married man? Interesting questions to pose, and an interesting dynamic that helps to build discord between characters, although they are ultimately questions that go unanswered.
Eleanors awkwardness, her self-doubt and her fear of her own abilities are beautifully demonstrated when Eleanor, having denied her connection to any paranormal or psychic behavior, resorts to a self-conscious and defensive outburst even after the others have moved on to another conversation. “That was the neighbors! They threw the rocks!” Eleanor blames the outburst on the stress caused by her mothers death two months earlier and Theo, her ESP in high gear, is immediately aware that Eleanor was relieved, not sorry, when her mother diedrelieved but also extremely anxious and guilt-ridden.
Wise continues to build the tension between characters and for the viewer with his use of dissonance. The foursome, having finished dinner, are relaxing in the parlor. Luke and Theo are playing a “friendly” game of Gin when Lukes outburst startles Eleanor. Wises use of the multilayered soundtrack in these sceneall four characters speaking at once and in agitated tones of voicebuilds the tension even further, leaving us somewhat startled at the silence following Eleanors scream.
Wises mastery of sounda skill honed over years as a sound editoris at work throughout the whole of the film, but there are few scenes where it is more apparent than the scene which takes place the first night. A quiet has descended over Hill House. The sounda not-gentle poundingincreases in volume and vigor, an unexplained noise reminiscent not only of Eleanors mothers death, but also the death of Abigail Craine. The sound is moving, as though traversing the halls of the house in search of somethingor someone. The feeling that the houseor something in the houseis searching for Eleanor is strengthened by the subtle turning of the doorknobthe face that looks at Eleanor and Theo as they cower in the four-poster bedand the heavy panting followed by a maniacal laughter.
The fear that Eleanor and Theo feel turns quickly to a nervous giddiness when they realize its all over and realize that Luke and Markway are completely unaware of the chaos that reigned only moments before their arrival. The laughter that erupts from both Eleanors and Theos throats mirrors the ghostly laughter that accompanies the terrific pounding at the door. Markway, aware of the oddity of the experience, becomes suspicious. Markways cautious speculation “Wouldnt you say that something, somehow is trying to separate us?” is followed, as many other scenes have been, with a cutaway to Hill House itself.
The next morning, the house asserts its claim to Eleanor. Her delight in her awareness that finally something is happening to her is abruptly cut short by Lukes revelation of the mysterious message bearing Eleanors name. Eleanor, recently aglow with the excitement of the events of the night before (an indication, Markway warns Eleanor, that she has “fallen under the spell of Hill House“) is frightened. “It knows my name!” she cries. The message is our first indication that the house, perhaps, is falling under Eleanors spell.
“Help Eleanor come home Eleanor” reads the message. The intimacy of the message and the intimacy of the moment is made tangible by the fact that the message appears on the wall in the hallway. Wise, aware of the power of the moment, has all four characters huddling in the narrow hallway to view the message, a message the viewer can only see parts of at a time. Eleanors feeling of being threatened, being cornered by the house, is portrayed in the claustrophobic environment constructed on the set of Hill House.
Eleanor eventually enters into an intimate exchange with the Hill House by way of her imaginary dance with Hugh Crane, a brief dance that results in quiet humming, the rise of the wind and the slamming of the door. The house, “vile” and “hideous“, both attracts and repels Eleanor. She is, after all, the “main attraction” and Eleanor is dizzy with the elation of being the center of attention. She has no oneand no placeof her own. The attention heaped upon her by the house, and by the others as a resultis the only attention shes ever known.
The house continues to reach out to Eleanor. That night, after a spat with Theo, Eleanor is awakened by a mans voice and a womans laughter. A face forms in the pattern on the wall and Eleanor, very frightened, speaks up and asks Theo to take hold of her hand. Her grip becomes tighter and tighter, compelling Eleanor to warn “Theo, youre breaking my hand!” When Eleanor cries out, Theo is immediately awakened. Thats when Eleanoralong with the viewerrealizes that somehow Eleanor has moved to the couch across the room and it was not Theo who was holding her hand. “Whos hand was I holding,” asks Eleanor, and once again there is a cutaway to the house itself.
Eleanors isolation is reinforced by the arrival of Grace, Markways wife. Displaced now that his attention is focused on his wife rather than on her, and threatened by displacement now that Mrs. Markway is sleeping in the nurserythe heart of Hill Housewhose doors have mysteriously opened to allow her to enter. “Shes taken my place,” Eleanor fears. “Im the one it really wants.“
Anxious of what might take place, Markway moves everyoneexcept his wife, who is intent on staying in the nursery, and Luke who is to take turns with Markway watching the over herto the parlor. Luke sneaks down to the nursery to get a nightcap when the door slams, trapping everyone inside. The door does indeed bulge and there is, without question, something on the other side. (In this case, it is a strong prop man leaning against a door made of many layers of varnished wood to give the impression that the door is elastic at the hands of some unseen force.) But Wise resists the temptation to show us what it is on the other side. He deliberately chooses to not open the door.
By the time Eleanors car collides with the tree, Wise, who has carefully constructed our experience at each and every turn. He has us so tied up in Eleanors experience of the house that we feel deeply that she has, at last, come home to Hill House. “Journeys end in lovers meeting.“
This film, so filled with layers of imagery, meaningful exchanges, and depth of story, is so carefully constructed that the movie flows almost effortlessly from beginning to end. The monster of Hill Houseis it the house? Hugh Craine? Abigail? Theo? Eleanor herself?is never brought to light. The complex interplay of personality and experience, of light and sound, of circumstance and settingthese are the monsters of Hill House. It is a feeling of horror that the viewer carries away from this film, a heightened awareness of the feeling of being watched, of unexplained sounds, of faces in the patterns of the wall, all experiences we ourselves have had and fears each one of us has confronted at one time or another.
Spielberg, Self and de Bont, by determining the monster of Hill House in their remake, by naming the monster Hugh Craine and giving him the shape and form of a CGI ghost, lose the subtle complexity that makes Wises version of The Haunting such a richly disturbing experience. In focusing so much attention on the technology of the effect and not the effect of the technology, Spielberg, Self and de Bont lost track of the essential core of the viewers experience. Without the proper set up, the monster behind the door isnt really all that scary after all.
Perhaps the tide is changing. Perhaps the popularity of films such as Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense indicates a return to the psychology of fear rather than the complexity of the special effect in fantastic filmmaking. The remake of The Haunting and its failure to measure up to Wises original reminds us that, despite the rapid development of special effects technology and the untapped potential of this new resource, special effects need to be a tool in the service of storytelling and not the story itself.
- Jensen, Jeff. “A Shiver Runs Through It.” Entertainment Weekly. July 23, 1999. p.22+.
- King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House, 1981.
- Leeman, Sergio. Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Directors Chair. Silman-James Press. 1995.
- Bansak, Edumnd G. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career. MacFarland & Co., 1995.
- Sullivan, Jack. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Viking Press, 1986.
- Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Twayne Publishers, 1975.
- Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Books, 1959.