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Retrospective: Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING

While the remake haunts video shelves, we look back at the original black-and-white classic.

By Frederick C. Szebin     November 25, 1999

November 23rd brought the home video release of this summer's full color, effects-laden, big budget remake of THE HAUNTING, based on the classic novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, by Shirley Jackson. What today's video renters may not realize is that the novel had been previously filmed in glorious black-and-white back in 1963. That version, directed by Robert Wise and adapted by Nelson Giddings, relied much on atmosphere, in-camera visual cues, audience imagination, and the literary craft of the novel itself to present a chilling story of ghostly possession and how that affected the unbalanced mind of a nave woman.

So much has changed in the interim. Special effects have found their day; audience participation is at an all-time low, and contemporary filmmakers know exactly how to tell their stories so that every member of the audience gets the exact same information with no chance of misinterpretation. Deep black shadows don't have the effect they once did, it seems. So when Jan DeBont offered his remake of this classic ghost story, he gave the audience what Hollywood thinks it expects: lots of noise, color, effects, and a story line that has little to do with what Jacksonor Wisehad intended many years ago.

The classic filmization of the story first began to take shape while Robert Wise was putting the finishing touches to one of the crowning jewels of his filmography, WEST SIDE STORY, when he came across a review of Shirley Jackson's newest novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE in Time Magazine. With his interest peaked, Wise bought a copy of the book, brought it back to his office and began to read.

'My friend Nelson Gidding was in an office across the way, working on another project for me, and I was right in the middle of reading one of the most hair-raising sequences in the book. Nelson suddenly burst into my office with a question, and I jumped four feet off the couch! I said, 'My God! If this story can do that to me just by reading it, there ought to be a pretty good picture in it!''

What so startled the director was Jackson's tale of a house that seems to do its own haunting, without benefit of apparitions or ectoplasm. Four people of diverse backgrounds are gathered at the bizarre structure known as Hill House, owned a century earlier by a demanding father who kept his daughter in constant fear of Godly vengeance. Dr. Markway, the parapsychologist in charge of the psychic investigation, gathers Theo and Eleanor, selected because they have had unexplained psychic disturbances in their lives, and Luke, wayward son of the current owners, who acts as representative. These four people are to live in the house and study its paranormal phenomena: noises, cold spots, and other manner of ghostly manifestations. The house itself is quite strange; its ghastly gothic shell covers an infrastructure designed in concentric and slanted circles. Doors close on their own, not particularly due to poltergeist activity, but simply because the slant of the house refuses to let them stay open. Mad old man Hill also had each bedroom done in a specific colorthe red room, the purple room and every other color of the spectrumto house the visitors as they try to decide what is going on.

Eleanor, the book's lead, is a spinsterish, mousy little woman, heavily influenced by romanticism and particularly susceptible to whatever forces control the house. She and Theo experience powerful rappings on the walls and doors; Dr. Markway and Luke go on a bizarre wild goose chase about the grounds after a doglike beast, and Eleanor's gentle psyche becomes more and more influenced by the house's forces until all agree that she should leave for her own safety. As she is driving away, something takes control of the car and smashes it into a tree, killing Eleanor and adding her spirit to the beings that walk the twisted corridors of Hill House.

Wise discovered that the novel's film rights were available, and got United Artists interested in its cinematic possibilities. UA purchased the novel for Wise, and the director set Gidding on the task of adapting to a visual medium a novel that depends very much on Eleanor's thoughts and feelings. Most writers see such an internal novel as being a nightmare to script, but Gidding, whose previous credits include such Robert Wise films as THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and THE HINDENBURG, took it in stride.

'It is difficult to adapt internal novels,' says Gidding. 'However, with THE HAUNTING, it turned out to be a strength--not that it made the job any easier. It made it more difficult. But once I got a handle on it, the story's internal nature gave me the idea that nothing should be visual; all the scary parts should be suggested in the audience's mind, not so much in the character's mind because that would make the story entirely psychological. I wanted the audience to see the horrors in their imaginations, not on the screen. What's up on the screen is a close up of a wall. Let the audience paint onto it what they see in their own minds. It's a movie that scares you without showing much.'

Gidding quickly discovered that to keep the integrity of Jackson's novel, the only way to adapt the internal nature of the printed story to a visual medium was through the careful use of voice-overs. THE HAUNTING is a story as much about Eleanor's state of mind as it is about ghosts. Eleanor's troubled psyche led to a bit of confusion during scripting that Gidding and Wise felt only the novel's author could clear up. 'Halfway through the adaptation,' recalls Gidding, 'I suddenly began to think that this isn't a ghost story at all, and we wanted to tell a real ghost story. I said to Bob, 'My God, I think we might have missed the bus and misunderstood the book. We better get this straightened out.' I said, 'This is about a woman who is disturbed. Hill House is an Institution where she's undergoing shock treatment and all the impressions she has of ghosts are effects of the treatment.' I named chapter and verse: Shock treatment gives you a sense of cold, which are the cold spots in the house. Patients undergoing shock treatments hear things; the ghostly pounding could be the slamming of cell doors. That kind of thing. The scene in which Eleanor wonders, 'Whose hand am I holding?'that's all psychosis brought on by shock treatment.'

Gidding even suggested that Dr. Markway represents the institution's attending physician, with Theo as a nurse and Luke as an orderly. And quite obviously, Eleanor is the patient. 'You can go through the whole story like this,' Gidding continues. 'I said to Bob, 'We better know what we're doing. It's fine to tell a ghost story, and I think we've done that so far. But let's not say we just fell into it.' We didn't want to end up with egg on our faces, or protoplasm, or something. So Bob said, 'Let's go see Shirley Jackson.''

Screenwriter and director visited the author, and Gidding explained his whole theory, finally asking if Eleanor was, indeed, a mental patient. 'No,' said Jackson, 'but it's a damn good idea!'

Clarifying the story's dramatic stance was the only contact Gidding, Wise and the rest of the production had with Jackson, except for a question Wise had about the title. Feeling that 'The Haunting of Hill House' would be a bit cumbersome on a marquee, Wise asked Jackson if she ever considered an alternate title to the story. 'The Haunting' had been briefly considered by the author, then embraced by the director. Now satisfied that he was rooted firmly in the supernatural, Gidding continued with his work.

The biggest change from the book to script was the character of Mrs. Markway, who joins the group late in the story. In Jackson's novel, Mrs. Markway (Montague on paper) is a sympathetic spiritualist intent on sending the ghosts of Hill House to a peaceful rest with the help of her assistant, Arthur Parker. Gidding dropped Parker altogether as a superfluous character and made Dr. Markway's wife a devout skeptic who thinks the whole business of haunted houses is a waste of time. As written, Gidding felt that Mrs. Markway and Arthur Parker didn't add much to the narrative, and that a totally conflicting view on the paranormal from Markway's wife added dramatic tension.

In the novel, Luke rescues Eleanor from an unsteady staircase, and Theo's sexual identity is quite veiled. In the script, Gidding gave the job of saving Eleanor to Markway. Seemingly a minute change, the screenwriter says such small alterations aren't so insignificant. 'There's a romantic interest which plays from the very beginning,' Gidding says. 'There is an understated romance between Eleanor and Markway. Luke has no part of it. He is an adversary, if anything. He joins Theo in teasing Eleanor. Theo is a lesbian. We had to be very careful how we handled that in those days, and we had to be careful not to leave it out. You can't be sure of it in the book, but there sure are all kinds of indications. These things are heightened in the movie.'

'It was a little stronger in the film, but still nothing overt,' Wise continues on Theo's sexual preference. 'We originally did show her lesbianism more obviously in a scene we cut out. We had a scene at the very beginning when we first see Theo. We were in an upstairs apartment with a window, and she was yelling down at a girl in a convertible. There was an angry exchange between them. The girl drove off in a hurry, and Theo went over to a mirror and wrote in lipstick 'I HATE YOU'. Somehow, that scene just hit it too much on the nose. You got that right away. Without that scene, Theo's lesbianism seemed to come across subtly enough.'

When the first draft script was ready, Wise suddenly discovered that United Artists had gotten cold feet and put the project into turnaround. What kept the film alive was an uncompleted contract with MGM. Wise had left the Big Lion after a disagreement, promising to complete one more film for them if released from his contract. MGM would only foot $1-million for the film, which the director felt was a bit too low. His lowest estimate was $1.4 million, and MGM brass refused to up their offer. As Wise was getting ready to go to England to show WEST SIDE STORY to the Queen for a Command Performance, someone suggested that he try MGM's British branch just outside London. MGM-UK offered $1,050 million, and by shooting in England with a mostly British cast and crew, Wise was finally able to mount the film he envisioned. THE HAUNTING was scheduled for 50 days, shooting five days a week, with all post-production to be done in the UK. A cast of American and British veterans was gathered. Julie Harris (EAST OF EDEN), stage performer Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom (LIMELIGHT) and Russ Tamblyn (WEST SIDE STORY) played Jackson's ghost hunters, with 007's lady in waiting Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, as Mrs. Markway.

The story's supernatural overtones seeped slightly into real life on a couple occasions. British actress Fay Compton informed the director during a talk about haunted houses that her own country home had to be exorcised twice when the first one didn't take. On another occasion, Wise was shooting exteriors of the old manor house that served as Hill Housewhich continues business to this day 10 miles outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Expecting his female leads any minute, Wise continued his Saturday shoot with infrared film to heighten the manor's already ghastly appearance.

'I was shooting and saw a big old limo coming up the drive way,' says Wise. 'I was pretty sure that it was Claire and Julie. The limo pulled up in front of the manor house. I went over to greet them, opened the back door and they were inside, clutching each other and saying, 'You mean we have to stay here?!''

The camera in THE HAUNTING is not just a recorder of events, but almost a participant. Bloated, twisted angles heighten the house's bizarre heritage and offer it as not just another setting, but the main character. It is nearly a living thing, as grotesque and unspeakable as anything author H.P. Lovecraft refused to describe. Wise chose as his means to convey that menace and mystery the most common tools available to a filmmaker: lenses, lighting, and black and white film.

'I never thought of filming THE HAUNTING in color,' says Wise. 'I don't think you could get the same kind of mood in color, even if you low-key and saturize it. There's something about really low-key black and white with rich blacks and bright whites and contrast that is just marvelous. It's the very best process for a horror story of that nature. As a matter of fact, it was written into my contract that the film was to be made in black and white.'

Wise cites production designer Elliot Scott as a major contributor to THE HAUNTING's success. Along with his impressive sets, Scott brought David Boulton onto the project to help with the expressionistic camera work. Boulton had been a still photographer working with a husband and wife documentary team. When there was a falling out with their cinematographer, the filmmakers gave Boulton the camera. Boulton had no footage to show Wise in the genre he was working in, but after meeting the cameraman, the director hired him, teaming Boulton with camera operator Alan McCabe, who was responsible for working with Wise on all the camera set ups and movements, while Boulton handled the lighting.

To enhance Elliot Scott's interiors built on the MGM-UK soundstages, Wise pulled a few strings and did a little begging. 'Scotty had done this marvelous interior for me,' Wise recalls. 'I wanted to get as many extreme angles as I could. About the most extreme angle Panavision had at that time was 35mm. I called Panavision's owner and founder and said, 'Bob, don't you have anything wider than 35mm?' He said, 'We're developing a 28mm, but it's got distortion.' I said, 'That's exactly what I want!' I had to twist his arm like mad to send it to me, and even then I had to sign a paper releasing him of any problems caused by the distortion.'

Unlike today's digitized, gru-spewing, FX-laden horrors, Wise's film utilized no real special effects of any kind, except for the moody, fog-like letters that spell out the film's title. What walks the halls of Hill House remains unseen. To show the power and threat of Jackson's specters, again Wise turned from the complex to the simple in a virtual homage to his days at RKO in the '40s, when he directed CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER, films that had to realize their grand schemes with few resources and much creativity.

The actual haunting is represented by no mere chain rattlings and guttural moanings. Hill House's spectral residents explode in an aural assault designed by A.W. Watkins, using descriptions of sounds right out of Jackson's book. Wise then used a playback system while filming, instead of having a prop man banging on something off-camera. Although a few of the sound effects were reworked in post-production, most of the unearthly din was pretty much the same in the finished film as they were during the on-set playback.

The two major physical effects used to illustrate the powers that be in Hill House were accomplished on the set: the unstable cast iron spiral staircase acts almost as a physical manifestation of Eleanor's spiraling grasp on reality, and the closed door of her bedroom barely keeps out the grasping spirits searching for Eleanor, the group's weakest link. For the shots of the huge bedroom door bending inward as the presence within Hill House tries to push it in, the startling effect was accomplished, simply enough, by a strong prop man pressing a 2 X 4 into the laminated wood.

The stair case effect was somewhat more difficult to achieve. 'The staircase was designed and built by the head of the studio's metal department,' says Wise. 'They used to call him 'Terry the Tinsmith'! It was pretty scary, the way it would wobble. Of course, we locked it off when we wanted to go up and down. When we first used it in filming to show how unstable it was, I had to go up myself and prove to the actors that it was safe!' Wise laughs. ' It was quite an achievement.

'I've been asked many times how we got that shot from the bottom of the stairs, winding its way to the top,' Wise continues. 'This was all planned ahead; the railing of the staircase was designed to fit on little rollers used as a base for a hand-held camera. We had some wire to control it. We got the staircase all lit and put the camera at the top, shooting upwards, and just let it go. It wound its way down. We just reversed the film!' he laughs. ' I don't know who came up with that brilliant idea, but it worked.'

Breaking from European tradition, Wise insisted on having a London-based sneak preview of the film to test audience reaction. 'We finally did have a preview,' he says, 'but I had to do it at an odd hour so people could get the buses home. It went quite well. I don't think we changed anything. I didn't have the reaction of an American audience, but I think, without sounding smug about it, that we got pretty much what we went after in that film.'

Although Shirley Jackson's view on the film is unrecorded, a friend of Gidding's who knew the author assured him that she did, in fact, enjoy it. First among the things Wise got in the film was a respect for the source material. Jackson'' novel was treated with respect by the director and screenwriter Giddings. They are one of the few teams in the industry to realize if the novel was deemed good enough to purchase, then it deserves to be followed during the scripting process. While director Jan DeBont and his screenwriter David Self took snatches from the book, their screen story deviates so much that it qualifies as an alternate vision of the same concept and not a true adaptation of Jackson's book. And while the remake isn't a truly awful movie (there are some quite wonderful things in it), it suffers from lapses in logic (no way a valid university would allow such an experiment to occur), poor character motivations (Liam Neeson's character has a hell of a lot to answer for once he gets back to town, like two mysterious deaths, as well as his unethical handling of a psychological experiment), and dead ends (two additional characters who leave early had nothing to do with anything and could have been easily jettisoned from the script). Initially, DeBont's flashy remake ladles on atmosphere with a trowel to some effective viewer unease, but once the computer artists take over to bring us old man Crane and the manipulation of his house, THE HAUNTING '99 is a hard-edged visual treat, pure cinema in the current Hollywood tradition--loud brazen eye candy in which the elements of the scene carry the day in lieu of actual subtlety, real screenwriting or any of that other potential messiness.

Wise's vision of the same story got its effectiveness from the director's cinematic boot campthe less-is-more, Psychological mise-en-scene of RKO Pictures during the 1940s, which was headed by a talented team of artists, key of which was producer Val Lewton. Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton created a feeling through their visuals (distorting lenses, dark, virtually living shadows) that were also enhanced by the performances, as well as Jackson's internal monologue for Nell. This version was as much a psychological study as it is a classical chiller. It takes its time, something mainstream filmmakers like DeBont don't seem to plot out in their pre-production plans. There is more important information in Nell's voice-overs as she glides down the halls in Wise's film that pertains to the psychologyand therefore the overall impactof the story than there is in DeBont's visually stunning and undoubtedly expensive last 20 minutes.

Props, like the justly-famous spiral stairway, in Wise's film take on a much more crucial importance than mere dressing; the stairway, as well as the film's distorted deep focus visuals and stark cinematography all relate to Nell's psychological state of mind, making the 1963 film a very intimate story of one woman alone in a crowd. DeBont has a double spiral staircase, but it serves merely as a point of screen actionCrane's ghost dismantles it as Neeson tries to save Lili Taylor's Nell, who is really in a lot less danger than he is, it seems. David Self added the trapped spirit children as plot point; Nell is not alone dealing with spiritual influence or maybe just her own fragile reality; she is now an empowered former-pawn, the clearest head in the house who sacrifices herself to free a house load of trapped Caspers from a megalomaniac spirit-father (suspiciously similar to Patricia Franklyn's character in THE LEGEND OF HILL HOUSE).

All well and good. Who can argue against the eternal freedom of child ghosts begging for help? And an empowered woman is always more comfortable for an audience than a victim (and a happier role model for certain political factions, let's face it), but the ultimate power of Jackson's complex drama was vastly simplified for the Hollywood Happy Ending. It can be argued that the true heart and core of a story is its ending. Jackson knew this; so did Wise and Giddings. That's why their film ended with the author's 'downer,' the eerie denouement Jackson had envisioned: the spirits cause Nell's death and she becomes one of the wandering spirits of Hill house. It is appropriate for the story that came before--perhaps the only logical conclusion based on what we learned about Eleanor throughout the story.

After crashing the car into the front gate in a failed attempt to flee, DeBont's characters hang about for another 20 minutes or so, in which the FX go full steam until Eleanor dies for no discernible reason after trapping Hugh Crane in his self-made purgatory. As Nell and her spirit children finally free themselves of the house, we're supposed to feelwhat?all warm and tingly? Doesn't quite work, but DeBont's film made a lot of money, so somebody out there was touched. I can't believe the film's success was based solely on Luke's beheading(!).

If that is true, American filmmaking, in the style of effective chillers like Wise's 1963 original production, face an increasingly insidious problemviewer apathy for anything more thoughtfully produced. That could make pictures like the original film a rarity for which no one would sit still after a diet of blaring THX and computer-generated eye candy. And how could we ever return from that abyss?

An MGM-UA release, 1963. Produced and Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Nelson Giddings, based on the book, 'The Haunting of Hill House', by Shirley Jackson. Cinematography (Cinemascope, B&W) by Davis Boulton. Music by Humphrey Searle. Production Design by Elliot Scott. Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell.

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