Viewers might have discovered Robert Wise’s The Haunting through clips, as part of a college level horror class, using it as an example of the genre’s capability of earnest emotion, that quality being the polar opposite of whatever meta-horror makes us feel. Although yes, I like most meta horrors better than the earlier stuff. Anyway, many roads lead to me personal revisiting of this film. Claire Bloom’s lesbian character Theo is one reason. Another reason is Mike Flanagan’s loose adaptation of Shirley Clarke’s pre-feminist novel. The last reason is that Wise and Nelson Gidding’s adaptation is leaving the Criterion Channel and I might as well catch it before finding it becomes difficult. So here I am, watching Theo get architecture trivia from Dr. John Markway, who chose her and two more guests to investigate the titular house’s supernatural phenomenon.
Horror beats comedy and sci-fi as the genre with a limited shelf life. The Haunting in particular, as a product of its time, spends its minutes letting the characters tour the house more than it does scaring us. But this film is less scary than it is fascinating. Besides, all house tours differ depending on who your guide is. If Markway plays the guide, he’ll give earnest details. Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) would leave the house after sunset. If it’s the house’s heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), he’ll give an irreverent version of the history of the man who built the house and his two wives. Theo won’t bother with the tour and would, despite of her chic cynicism, just want everyone else to be happy. She specifically wants that happiness for Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), who feels like she’s one with the house.
Other critics have pointed out Wise’s heavy borrowing from his mentor Val Lewton, and it shows here. The violins screech whenever it shows a shot of, say, a door leading to a dark room. Wise made gangsters and Austrians look squeaky clean and he does the same thing to a haunted house. But again, the characters here are fascinating and subversive like a schoolboy’s untucked shirt. That subversive nature exists especially with the female characters.
Markway’s chooses highly perceptive women to investigate the house with him instead of men putting on fake brave faces. His wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) even shows up and hints that she doesn’t believe in any of his supernatural crap. This film, as a whole, feels like an answer to future meta-horrors. While viewers scream at their TVs asking horror characters to get out of a haunted house, this film justifies these people’s strange attraction to the place. These are broken people who have nowhere else to go.
Stream The Haunting on The Criterion Channel because it has two more days before it disappears like a ghost. There’s another place where you can find this film but I’m not gonna tell you where that is.