[Review] GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

@craiggors

Don’t go into the woods. It’s a moniker so deeply imbedded in the human psyche it’s almost primordial. As Miss @melmoy has explained on the podcast, these words of caution harken back to a time when danger, specifically supernatural danger, was thought to be more prevalent the further one journeyed from the home, and this often manifested in journeys into the woods. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Dark canopies, flitting shapes, mysterious sights and sounds–who knows what hides behind the trees, under the rocks, in the underbrush? The forest as threat is an old storytelling element, often used as the setting for folk and fairy tales where strange, magical events took place. Almost every Brothers Grimm story involves the mysterious wood, and Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In Osgood Perkins‘s take on the German classic, the fairytale gets a vibrant update and the woods become more deliciously sinister than they’ve ever been before…

Sixteen year old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is turned out of her mother’s home when she is unable to secure a job as housekeeper to a local creep. She takes her eight year old brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) with her, planning to fend for herself by finding other work or throwing themselves at the mercy of a nearby convent. After heading off into the woods and receiving some helpful advice from a kindly Hunter (Charles Babalola), the siblings find themselves drawn off the path to the home of an elderly woman named Holda (Alice Krige), whose table is full and whose beds are warm. But something is wrong in Holda’s house, and Gretel begins to suspect that these sweet gifts are not given freely.

It’s always tricky taking established stories, particularly fairy tales, and giving them a fresh spin, and there’s numerous methods employed to make them longer, more surprising, or more enticing for a modern audience. Rather than padding the Grimm story with additional fluff, Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and co-screenwriter Rob Hayes keep the bones and add depth to the themes and character motives suggested by the original story. The result is a sleek 87-minute feature that tackles a well-trod tale through a contemporary lens that engages notions of female empowerment and the agency of children in a world where social constructs allow adults the unchecked ability to severely diminish that agency. Despite the brief, and appreciated, runtime, the film can feel a bit slow at times. It’s far from plodding, but Gretel & Hansel is nonetheless a restrained film that invites you to soak in the atmosphere being unspooled on screen.

And, to be fair, it is a sumptuous atmosphere. Gorgeous, lingering shots and gauzy reds and yellows make the film feel like some sort of cross between ghostly tableau and Argento dreampiece. Much credit is due to cinematographer Galo Olivares (Roma) and production designer Jeremy Reed (Hard Candy) for their seamless blending of beautifully unsettling camerawork and anachronistic sets to conjure sensations of unease and enchantment in the viewer, often within the same frame.

Lillis carries the film well, bringing equal parts warmth and weary determination to Gretel in a vein subtle though perhaps more subtle than her turn as Beverly Marsh in It (2017). Newcomer Leakey is a bit awkward with his delivery most times, but he and Perkins are careful never to let Hansel slip into the realm of supremely annoying child characters in horror, and for that I’m grateful. Krige delivers the most tasty performance as Holda, being fantastically creepy and hissing out the film’s best lines like some sort of bewitched serpent. Given that the film is rated PG-13 and is clearly meant to function as gateway/intermediate horror for a younger audience, it’s impossible to think that Krige’s Holda won’t leave a memorable impression on the minds of any youth in attendance.

While the ending might feel a bit rushed or anticlimactic for some, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of last weekend’s The Turning (2020), and it provides room for a satisfying denouement that should sweeten any bitterness left by the relatively mundane final confrontation. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, Gretel & Hansel is doubtless a beautiful film with a striking mood that doles out its pleasurable imagery and wicked sense of framework slowly and effectively. Though it does not shatter expectations when it comes to fairytale horror, it more than meets them, offering up a buffet of mesmerizing cinematography and spellbinding colors. Come and feast.

Gretel & Hansel

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE TURNING (2020)

@craiggors

While I think the horror industry is slowly but surely re-marketing January releases from “dumping ground” to “decent films,” there’s still a long road ahead before that shift in public perception can take a justifiable hold, and The Turning (2020) is a certainly a stumbling block on the path of this noble quest. It’s a shame because the film keeps ahold of itself for the majority of its runtime and only truly drops the ball in the final act; but it’s a fumble so disastrous there’s absolutely no way to save the game afterwards.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) from a screenplay by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, House of Wax) and based off the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the film follows Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts the post of live-in nanny to Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklyn Prince) Fairchild in their sprawling, palatial estate in upstate Maine. Kate is excited at the chance to help two orphaned youngsters flourish and grow despite their hardships, but she soon discovers that neither of the children is as innocent as they appear and that they, and their dark, foreboding home, are sheltering dark secrets.

Negative reception of the film aside, no one can fault the acting. Wolfhard is solid if a bit strange channeling his creepy, pervy side as Miles, and Prince is an energetic scene-stealer who can hold her own against Davis, who delivers a convincing, relatable performance of a woman with all the best intentions going up against a dangerous situation she can’t fully comprehend. Davis is one of those actresses who knows her craft and what she needs to do in order to amp up subpar material, yet still can’t seem to get a foothold in Hollywood proper. I fear this movie may not do her any favors, though from a technical standpoint it’s far from abysmal.

There’s some good work going on in The Turning outside of the performances, as well. Cinematographer David Ungaro frames some interesting, well-constructed shots throughout, and the production design of the house and the spirits make for some cool, spooky imagery. Sure the movie is chock full of tropes, and the majority of the scares are easy-to-predict jump ones, but at least it’s fun to look at. As others have pointed out, the true fault of the film is the screenplay, though I think it may be more accurate to pinpoint the ridiculous ending. It’s honestly not an awful film for the first two acts to the point where I caught myself in the theater wondering why the early reviews were so dismal and then the “ending” hit and I chided myself for being too trusting.

I use quotation marks not out of a sense of snobbish disdain, but because the closing moments of The Turning are some of the worst excuses for an ending I’ve ever seen. I can see what Sigismondi and the writers were going for–attempting to put a twist on the ambiguity so essential and infamous from James’s original novella–but they fail spectacularly. Instead, we’re left with an illogical and inane closing that feels like a poorly timed joke your least favorite uncle tells over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s so nonsensical and just plain dumb that it brings what would have otherwise been an average if watchable movie down into the depths of horror’s “worst of” category. The only thing I’ll give it is that it elicited physical reactions from almost everyone in my theater, though it was mainly groaning and exclamations of phrases one shouldn’t use in polite blogging.

The Turning is a movie with a good cast and a strong foundation ruined by an ending so baffling it leaves one irritated and wondering what could have been if original producer Steven Spielberg had stayed attached and brought forth a proper adaptation of one of the greatest psychological horror stories of all time. Instead, we’re left with a tropey showpiece that wasted time and talent, not to mention money. Mike Flanagan’s upcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix lessens the sting somewhat, but it’s still best to turn away from this one and pretend you didn’t see a thing.

The Turning

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] UNDERWATER (2020)

@craiggors

You’d be forgiven for taking a glance at the trailer for William Eubank’s Underwater (2020) and assuming it was an Alien rip-off in the ocean. It’s a well trod plot structure familiar to even casual genre fans: humans push too far against the borders of the natural world and are met with monstrous, cosmic consequences for their hubris. Underwater doesn’t stray too far from that formula, though it does incorporate a bit more Lovecraftian elements than one might expect from this particular corner of the genre, and that adds some spice to an otherwise standard January horror release.

Tian Industries has pioneered the technology that will allow them to drill seven miles deep into the Mariana Trench. At the Kepler 822 station, where the drill is set up, mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is reflecting on life under the waves when an earthquake hits, nearly destroying the facility and sending Norah scrambling for her life, picking up a few other straggling survivors along the way. After they assess the damager, our heroes realize that the only way back to the surface is to don diving suits and walk two miles across the trench floor to reach the escape pods at a nearby outpost. But there are other things than algae lying in wait in the deep, deep dark…

Underwater wastes no time inciting the action, with the earthquake hitting barely five minutes into the film and the danger and chaos never letting up for the entire runtime. As such, it’s a fast paced film, and any moments of character development or reflection are left to snippy quips of dialogue that the viewer must strain to catch amidst the never-ending adventure sequences. To be fair, this is not a film that requires its characters to be noteworthy or two-dimensional; it’s all about the riveting survival story, though the cast is game enough to do their best to give each of their characters some depth. Stewart in particular draws on her years in the indie film circuit to tap into some beats of raw vulnerability to balance out Norah’s frightened yet determined survivalist instincts.

Eubank (The Signal) and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness) do the best they can to create a stylized, eerie sea world and bring Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad’s (The Legend of Tarzan) screenplay to life. There’s some cool set pieces and a solid sense of color in the production design, and Eubank knows exactly when to start showing the monsters, and how much, to maximize tension. That being said, the film still relies too heavily on its predecessors even as it strives to become its own beast.

What’s nice about Underwater is that it’s a horror film made specifically for horror fans, a trend in recent years that only seems to be getting stronger. It’s more than serviceable as an average popcorn movie that’s light on character and heavy on action. The script could have used another round of polishes, but an able cast, clever camerawork, and some properly ferocious monsters allow the film to tread water. You won’t exactly be riding the waves with this one, but you won’t be coughing for air either.

Underwater

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #31: HALLOWEEN (1978)

@craiggors

“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; not even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil” -Dr. Sam Loomis

Michael Myers. Perhaps the single greatest icon of the horror film. His debut appearance as “The Shape” in Halloween (1978) saw the beginning of a new era in the genre . The film established John Carpenter as a cinematic genius, established the “rules of horror,” and kickstarted the slasher film sub-genre that reached somewhat nauseating heights in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Halloween has since become a staple of not only horror culture, but pop culture in general and still frequently places in the Top 3 or 4 horror films of all time from diehard fans to Fangoria to AFI.

October 31, 1963, in the quaint, all-American suburban utopia of Haddonfield, Illinois, an unseen figure watches a teenage girl engage in a “romantic dalliance” with her boyfriend. The viewer is placed in the figure’s mind, the camera moving as his body moves, the screen his vision. We move into the house where both a large kitchen knife and a ghoulish clown mask are acquired. Then, now peering through the hollowed eyes of the mask, we move up the stairs and into the girl’s bedroom, where she sits at her makeup table. She turns, and is stabbed repeatedly. The assailant is revealed to be six-year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin), and the victim, his older sister Judith (Sandy Johnson).

The now famous opening sequence of Halloween, inspired in part by the opening crane shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958),was not the first moment where a filmmaker put the audience into the eye of a maniac, but it become one of the most well-executed and well-known. It’s unsettling, even now, to watch and become an unwilling participant in the first of many Michael murders. And this is just the beginning of a relentlessly suspenseful film with a tight plot and an energetic pace. Fifteen years after Michael stumbles onto his front lawn to greet his parents with a bloody knife and a blank face, he escapes from Smith’s Grove Asylum, where he has sat, without speaking. His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), tracks him back to Haddonfield, where Michael (Nick Castle) begins to stalk a trio of babysitters, none of them aware of the danger that has inserted itself into their community. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) proves the only one resourceful enough to fit back against this faceless and pursuant evil.

Halloween became one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, a well deserved but surprise success given that it had a budget of about $350,000. This attracted the attention of a number of filmmakers and studios who began to mimic Halloween and thus the slasher film became its own out of control vehicle, dominating horror well into the 1980’s, though none were near as skillful and inoffensive as their muse. As a scare machine, Halloween is virtually flawless. Carpenter’s memorable score alone has been known to send chills down people’s spines, even if they haven’t even seen the film. The tension is always high, and makes use of pantomime scares made possible by the Panavision format, a somewhat rare indulgence for a low-budget film at the time.

Everything from the set pieces to the neighbors pulling down the blinds and shutting out the lights as Laurie runs from house to house showcase Carpenter’s technical and visual flair. Michael Myers does not only stalk the streets of Haddonfield, he stalks the imaginations of the viewers, a villain so cold and brutal there is no way he won’t imprint himself on the psyches of anyone who watches him do battle against the wily Laurie Strode. Speaking of which, if Michael is the quintessential horror movie villain, it should be noted that four of every five horror fans will name Laurie Strode as the greatest horror movie heroine of all time. Jamie Lee Curtis was cast in the movie as the ultimate tribute to her mother Janet Leigh legendary star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and she remains the reigning scream queen of the horror genre, having belted her way through this and other great classics such as The Fog (1980), Terror Train (1980), and the original Prom Night (1980).

Given that Halloween is looked at as the birth of the slasher sub-genre (though truly the genre has origins in the splatter films of the 1960’s, Italian gialli films, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974)–among a few other lesser-known sources), it must also be looked at as the beginning of the “rules of horror” that equate sex, drugs, and partial nudity with death. And turning your back on the seemingly dead killer with unreal physical abilities is also a big no-no. This formula was adopted wholesale by later slashers, and has been something that both Carpenter and Halloween have come under fire for–Michael kills his sister after watching her fornicate, and strikes down several other teens either after sex or while preparing to have sex, but the virginal Laurie survives.

Carpenter has defended this pattern as being a realistic portrayal of how teenagers behave. Laurie survives less because she is a virgin than because she has less to distract her as the ill-fated Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes). In fact, the characters in Halloween are fairly well-drawn and sympathetic, almost nothing like the mindless drones that populate the abundance of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. We care about the characters in Halloween because we are given true insight into their lives. 

Even for all of it’s realism, the film never loses that eerie emptiness that hangs over the streets and seeps through the glowing pumpkins, turning the whole town of Haddonfield into a menacing neverland. As the film progresses, Michael Myers becomes less the archetype of an escaped lunatic and more the sinister boogeyman so feared by the film’s two child characters, Tommy (Brian Andrews) and Lindsey (Kyle Richards). Though not as blatantly obvious as the sequels, something about Michael rings of a supernatural indestructibility, and there is no better evidence of this than the haunting final montage.

The much beloved Donald Pleasance, who would collaborate with Carpenter on several future projects after Halloween, delivers his lines with an admirable, albeit creepy, elegance, and gets at the heart of why we so fear The Shape–his pure, unsaturated evilness. There is something deeply frightening about a monster not the product of a dysfunctional family or warped society, but one who is filled with a malice and a darkness that cannot be reasoned with or explained.

It is this fear that slowly crawls over the viewer as they take in Halloween, elevating the movie to heights beyond babysitter murders and inefficient police backup. As the film ends, cutting from empty street to empty house to empty school, the heavy breathing of Michael growing louder and deeper in our ears, the audience is left with the sensation that Tommy may have been right, and thus wonders, what if? What could happen on Halloween this year, the night when the barriers between the living and the dead are thinnest, and we enter a world not of our own–a world of masks, knives, and ominous shapes?

Halloween

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #30: HALLOWEEN (2018)

@craiggors

When it was announced that the new Halloween film would wash away every other film in the franchise and act as a direct follow-up to the original, fans were equal parts mystified and titillated. The fervor increased when it was solidified that Laurie Strode herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, would return to battle it out against her arch-tormentor Michael Myers for the first time in twenty years (I’m not counting Halloween: Resurrection or the Rob Zombie travesties). But could David Gordon Green’s film live up to the massive hype? Patient horror hounds got their answer last year, and what a bloody answer it was…

Halloween retcons all of the franchise’s canon outside of the 1978 original. Gone is the brother-sister connection established in Halloween II (1981) that was so large a part of the mythos, as well as both of Laurie’s previous children from Halloween 4 (1988) and Halloween H20 (1998), and all the crazy supernatural nonsense that went with those campy, lovable sequels. But Laurie remains. In this sequel, it’s been four decades since her run-in with Michael, and Laurie has become a doomsday survivalist, hellbent on exacting revenge for the inevitable night that she reunites with the thing that murdered her friends and traumatized her for life. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), however, wish that she would let the paranoia go and live a normal life. But it’s not so easy for Laurie; she knows that unless she puts Michael in the ground herself, he’ll haunt her forever.

This new backstory is established slowly through the film’s prologue, which follows a pair of true crime podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) as they attempt interviews with both Michael, held in captivity at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, and Laurie, holed up in her jerry-rigged isolation cabin. Through their probing, we learn of the crises and drama Laurie has experienced in the years since that fateful Halloween night and how she’s changed from the girl-next-door to the woman she is today. Yet even throughout all this exposition and character development, there’s still time for blood and carnage as Michael makes his escape and begins his rampage across Haddonfield.

And it’s quite the rampage. The body count of this new Halloween is far higher than the original, and a good majority of the prior sequels. There’s some great, varied sequences of The Shape doing his thing, including the oft-promoted scene in the truck stop bathroom that also acts as a nod to Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). The brutality of the kills in the film is also worth noting, as Michael is far more savage than we’ve ever seen him, barring the Zombie films. Given that in this timeline Michael’s been stewing in his rage for forty years and now has the chance to finally unleash it, it makes sense that the kills are extra twisted.

What’s interesting about the film, especially given that it was promoted as the final showdown between Laurie and Michael–not to mention the theme of predator and prey throughout–is that Michael doesn’t actually appear to be hunting Laurie once he escapes. His kills are mainly random, whereas in the original, we see the progression of how he chooses to stalk and dispatch with Laurie and her cronies. In this installment, he doesn’t interact with anyone in Laurie’s life until late in the film, right before the third act showdown. Which, let’s be honest, is why everyone is here after all.

The final face off more than lives up to expectations. It’s a sustained, nasty affair that is visceral to watch unfold and emotionally taxing in the best way to experience as a viewer. Laurie’s booby-trapped home acts as the perfect battleground, and there’s all sorts of unexpected developments that make you wonder just how exactly this confrontation is going to end and who is going to come out on top, if anyone. Several moments are nail-bitingly tense, and the confluence of the main characters at the house during the conflict means the audience is constantly on the edge of their seat in fear of Michael’s next offing.

The cast is solid and supportive, with newcomer Matichak grounding the high school sequences that primarily serve as body fodder, and Greer as whiny, disbelieving Karen getting a nice redemptive moment at the climax. Naturally, the film belongs to Curtis, who is sensational in the role that launched her career and still defines her as a performer today. As a vehicle to reunite Laurie with Michael, the film triumphs, but it also succeeds quite well as a respectable, entertaining entry into the larger Halloween franchise and one that rewards longtime, diehard fans. Once again, Michael has come home. And so have we.

Halloween

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #29: BOYS IN THE TREES (2016)

@craiggors

A coming-of-age story all taking place over one night–Halloween night, to be specific–involving ghosts, werewolves, bullies, creepy forests, life, love, romance, death, and the power of imagination. Interested yet?

Halloween, 1997. The last night of high school for Corey (Toby Wallace), his domineering friend Jango (Justin Holborow), and their skater gang. Childhood is over and the world of adulthood beckons. But Corey’s past has unfinished business. Business that must be resolved tonight. When he encounters Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former childhood friend now victimized by Jango’s cruel and insatiable bullying, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old times sake. The two estranged teenagers find themselves reviewing memories, dreams, and fears with one another in what soon turns into a surreal and dangerous game that will leave them both drastically altered.

Boys in the Trees is a nostalgia-fueled Halloween romp that will speak to the spirit of all true 90’s kids, fans of Stranger Things, and lovers of the spookiest time of year, no matter your age. The story unfolds slowly, revealing truths and mysteries to us as we progress. From the beginning, there is a promise of conventional horror thrills that is denied in favor of delivering something decidedly different and unexpected, but it achieves the same effect. Suspense is still generated in surprising and meaningful ways. The final turn loses a bit of the film’s careful balance and leaves the ending feeling a bit uncanny but not full-on phony. It’s not the most well-calculated move for the story, but it’s not a hole in the ship either.

In many ways, Boys in the Trees is a love story. Not romantic love, perhaps (though there are a few subtle hints that present the possibility and sexuality is a running theme), but the deep and sweeping love of first friendship. Corey and Jonah’s bygone kinship is something we come to understand was once binding, special, and powerful; something lost to the winds that echoes on this Halloween night, this night of the dead, as all lost things do. We’re treated to a few flashback scenes that confirm this and play out an important plot point, but not until late in the film do we really come to understand this based solely on the performances of the actors playing Corey and Jonah, both of whom are phenomenal, committed, and real. Toby Wallace, in particular, does an excellent job at communicating a mixture of surprise, guilt, and confusion as Corey discovers how much he still has in common with his old friend and pain at the buried truths that come to light during their time together.

The film isn’t heavy on scares, and the ones that do pop up are more creepy than frightening, but it’s all in keeping with the tone and thematic overhaul of the film’s message. It’s more focused on showcasing the trials and tribulations of growing up set against a Halloween backdrop. Nicholas Verso is a confident and assured filmmaker who conjures up surreal scenes and dreamscape imagery that wavers back and forth between sinister and ethereal, chief among them a memorable Day of the Dead-themed house party. The runtime might be a bit long, and the melancholic metaphors might seem obvious at first but by the time things wrap up and come full circle, the emotional imprint becomes deeply affecting.

Boys in the Trees is reminiscent of The Halloween Tree, a story about souls moving between places on Halloween night when spirits cross into this world with ease and if we are not careful, we may also cross into theirs. The narrative is dark, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world and how toxic masculinity so easily traps boys and slowly destroys them, body and soul, before they’re even aware of themselves as functioning humans. Verso doesn’t let us look away from these hard truths, lingering on looks, songs, and feelings to make his point, but despite the heartbreaking turns in the story, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note of hope and optimism. In Boys in the Trees, we are called to remind ourselves that no matter how deep our pain may be, we must still remember to dream. To dream very, very big.

Boys in the Trees

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #28: THE HAUNTING (1963)

@craiggors

Regarded as the definitive haunted house novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a mainstay in classic horror fiction and is beloved by fans of all ages and generations; Stephen King calls it one of the most frightening books he’s ever read. Given that great works of literature have a tough time becoming great works of film as well, it would not have been a surprise if the first cinematic adaptation of Jackson’s seminal work was a flop; but in the careful hands of director Robert Wise, flop status was happily avoided (until the Jan de Bont 1999 remake, of course) and we were left with one of the all-time greatest haunted house movies ever. Assuming, of course, that the house is actually haunted…

Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a lonely, shut-in spinster who has spent the  majority of her adult life caring for her recently deceased mother, takes a chance on an adventure at Hill House, an old Victorian mansion with a sordid past, where she will take part in a psychic experiment led by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), who hopes to prove the existence of the supernatural. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), playboy heir to Hill House, and Theodora (Claire Bloom), a mysterious bohemian woman with purported telekinetic abilities. As soon as the four are settled and left to their devices by the caretakers, strange things begin happening at Hill House, things that seem to revolve around Eleanor — but are they paranormal phenomenon or the fantasies of a young woman coming undone? Both the characters and the viewer are tasked to find out, but the film is resolute in its detail of clarity.

It can be said that The Haunting set the standard for great haunted house movies, perhaps even the rulebook. One such rule that usually proves particularly beneficial is that the haunted house film must be psychologically driven, and so character is everything. Certainly we question the sanity of Eleanor, our focal point, but can we trust stability and motives of the other characters any better? Upon closer inspection, none of them can be entirely trustworthy witnesses. Dr. Markway gave up an aristocratic lifestyle to prove the supernatural to the academic world, and so he very much wants, if not needs, to discover a ghost or two. Theodora exhibits jealousy at the attention given to Nell and is an admitted psychic, a dubious profession in the public eye, and there’s always a lingering question of whether or not she’s making a game out of the whole experience. It’s the beauty of the film to have crafted characters and placed them in such an unsure situation that we can never ground ourselves as a viewer to a point of trust. We’re left drifting about the house, much like Eleanor in the midst of one of her musings.

Eleanor is the soul and star of the story, however, and is played brilliantly by Julie Harris, whose performance elevates Nell above the histrionic women we might expect from a William Castle film of the same era. Her character is matched only by the presence of the house itself, brought to life by an exceptional production value full of misshapen rooms, flock wallpaper, sinister cherubs, angled mirrors, and suffocating Victorian clutter. From the set dressings alone we feel the sinister sense of this house that was born bad, and that’s before unseen presences pound their way down a corridor and on a bedroom door, which is still today one of the most chilling sequences in horror cinema.

Of course, the brilliance of The Haunting is that it never confirms the origin of that horrendous knocking. It certainly seems and sounds like a malevolent spirit, but perhaps it’s rooted in Nell, somewhere deep and subconscious. She’s come to Hill House to escape the drudgery of her everyday life and sees an opportunity to finally “belong,” both to the group and to the House. Is she somehow causing the noises in the old manor? Is she unstable and hallucinating? Or, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is she pretending that all the experiences are real? Wise, like Jackson with the source material, provides many hallways which we might walk down to find the truth and so the tension in The Haunting comes as much from the interpersonal dynamics of the strangers locked inside as it does from the stressful environment or the possible actions of the house itself. As Dr. Markway says, the house’s occupation by spirits can only be suspected, not confirmed. And that is perhaps the most haunting thing of all.

The Haunting

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror