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

31 by 31 Challenge #27: VIY (1967)

@melmoy

Shudder is a great app. It’s about $4 for a subscription and you have access to some pretty great horror films, TV shows, and documentaries. This is mainstream classics  (Halloween, Evil Dead, Heathers, Black Christmas), critically acclaimed films (A Girl Walks Alone at Night, Train to Busan), and some wild stuff I’d previously never heard of but found a ton of fun (Deadtectives, The Void). It’s especially great for an October night when you’re bored, maybe getting sick and looking for something to do while you’re lighting your pumpkin candles.

One such October night was last night when I stumbled across 1967’s Viy on their catalog. This was the first Soviet era horror film ever produced and is based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name about a philosophy student who finds himself forced to stand three night’s vigil over the corpse of a vengeful witch. It’s the goofiest film I’ve watched in a while, 1960s Russian special effects capabilities and ridiculous English dubbing making it weird enough to watch but there’s something particular about Russian produced art that hits western audiences in a weird way.

Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and his friends make the mistake of taking shelter with a haggard old woman in the wilderness when they become lost on their way to holiday from school. Khoma is singled out by the hag who seems to put a spell on him and forces him to gallop like a horse while she rides, and eventually flies, on his back. Khoma escapes and leaves the witch—now a beautiful young woman—for dead. His peace is short lived, however, when he is called back from the seminary by a wealthy landowner whose dying daughter has asked for Khoma by name and bribes the deacon. Khoma is forced back to face the witch over three nights of vigil over her dead body. Ultimately he succumbs to her magical assault.

First and foremost, it’s a hefty cultural film. The feudal culture of rural Ukraine, the specific kind of folklore and local legends passed between rural Russians and Ukrainians, the kinds of folk heroes rural folk aspire to be in Russian-controlled lands. It’s also a bleak and depressing film without any real emotional catharsis or overall thesis statement. Our protagonist, Khoma, is a rambunctious and drunkard of a philosopher, he’s selfish and immature. We don’t really feel bad for his plight, though it feels less like punishment and more like a freak occurrence of bad luck. He does not die as the result of any Biblical edict he broke or any concrete moral code. He simply became worn down after 3 nights of torment.

If the film makes any specific note, it’s on corruption of landowning classes and the church—and how they work together to ensure profit for themselves. It’s implied the woman’s father knows about her supposed witchcraft and trafficking with demons and offers Khoma a thousand gold pieces if he can cure his daughter’s soul and threatens him with beating and torture if he fails. Khoma, a promising if misguided young student, is sacrificed in the attempt by a rich man to cover up a dark family secret. Typical communist sensibilities around money and landowners.

Another interesting note about this film is its reliance on the traditional motifs in Eastern European folklore. Gogol posits in his story, the movie does the same thing, that Viy is a well known and renown demonic figure in Ukrainian folklore. That’s not true. Though Khoma comes in contact with many traditional figures of Slavic folklore including the “midnight dead” and the rusalka. But the story relies on the rule of proximity found in Slavic folklore (the farther from home you are, the more dangerous it is) as well as the widespread use of “trebling” in western folklore (things happen in threes).

What’s the point here? I watched a weird and fun movie, that was visually pretty stunning, despite the outdated and almost corny effects. The mood and tone built excellent tension that even got me a little nervous at times. I’ve always enjoyed “The Viy” and thought it had more potential as a horror film, though it never seemed to take off (likely because of the hyper-Slavic elements that would probably just confuse modern audiences in the west). Still, this was a pretty fun find on a Tuesday night in the fall. Maybe this whole thing was a plug for Shudder while I vomited my thoughts about an obscure Soviet horror film. If you made it this far, join Shudder and read the short story.