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 #23: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)

@craiggors

Norwegian director Andre Øvredal followed up his satirical dark fantasy monster movie Trollhunter (2010) with a deadly serious chiller, also his English-language debut, that became a sleeper hit and in short time has gained traction as a beloved contemporary horror classic.

Small town coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) runs his family business out of a state-of-the-art mortuary and crematorium bunker underneath the family homestead. With son-in-training Austin (Emile Hirsch) assisting him, the two stay late one night in order to perform an autopsy on a recently delivered, and unidentified, female corpse from a local murder scene. The corpse exhibits no outward signs of distress or notable markings. But as the duo begin their extensive examinations in order to produce a c.o.d (cause of death) for the demanding sheriff, dark questions about the mysterious girl arise, and their answers prove sinister.

One excellent feature of the film to note right off the bat is the perfectly mapped structure of the film. The story is entirely linear in the best way, providing a sense of order the viewer can anticipate and follow. Father and son embark on their normal examination process the way they would for any other “new arrival,” and we’re told that this will involve a cursory exterior examination, an inspection of the internal organs, and then finally peeling back the skull to tackle the brain. All the while, they will speculate on possible c.o.d. based on their findings. The great thing about this set-up is that, after strange things begin to happen in that cold, clean basement, the viewer knows that there are more mysteries coming. They still have the next step ahead of them. As such, a very tangible sense of dread, anticipation, and danger develops.

Throughout the procedure there’s some excellent dialogue exchanged between the two leads, Tommy and Austin. The elder Tilden is unceremonial and by-the-books in his work, as one needs to be in such a profession, and Austin is the loyal son who sacrifices time spent with his girlfriend to help his father get the work done. What’s great is that, even with this sacrifice, the relationship between father and son is never painted as strained or difficult as so many films do in order to fashion drama and tension. They are normal people thrown into a very abnormal situation and it is their relationship that allows them to move together through this trial. Hirsch and Cox both deserve credit for this, and for creating real characters easy to identify with and follow on their unusual journey. But the anchoring performance of the film would have to be Olwen Kelly as the Jane Doe corpse. Playing dead is an art, and a difficult one at that. She’s got no lines, barely moves, and is nude pretty much the entire time, and yet somehow still manages to deliver a great performance. Who would have guessed?

The film is also, thankfully, full of frights. The scares are not necessarily abundant, but there’s just enough, and they are so excellently and deftly executed that I want to avoid even the tiniest bit of discussion of them here in order to save you the surprise later. I will say that even if you spot one of the scares coming early on (there’s some pretty obvious throwaway dialogue that hints at it), you’ll still find your heart racing and your pulse quickening when things start to go awry. 

If all of this sounds sufficiently vague, then good. The less clues you have to the mystery, the better. Piece by piece the film weaves together who Jane Doe is, why her body bears no signs of outward physical trauma, and what exactly happened to her and the revelation is both haunting and satisfying, though the third act itself is not entirely original. But such a minor flaw can be forgiven for the sake of great, likable characters, a steady supply of the creepiness and unease, and beautiful production design. The coroner’s facility in the basement is an excellent set, creating a sort of locked-room effect as the action never leaves the mortuary. There’s lots of playing with shadows and corners and the excellent placement of a corner mirror that figures in some of the film’s most terrifying moments. A definite recommendation, full of spooks that will make it impossible for you to just lie still…

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

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