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The Haunting

This 1963 movie is based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House,  which I haven't read. So I can't comment on how well it serves or does not serve the book, but it's an excellent work on its own. It must surely be one of the best ghost stories in cinema. I'm qualifying that because there also must surely be many that I haven't seen. But The Haunting really bears comparison with some of the art films of the time. It reminded me of some of Bergman's darker work. It isn't as weird or as profound as Hour of the Wolf, but it's technically comparable--that is, it shows a comparable level of craft in the creation of its atmosphere. The black-and-white cinematography is excellent. The acting is good to excellent. 

Like Hour of the Wolf, it's as much about the psychology of the characters as it as about ghosts. It involves a researcher into psychic phenomena who recruits several people to stay with him at the reputedly haunted Hill House and assist him in investigating it. One of them is a vulnerable and unstable woman, and...well, the fact that it's pretty obvious that she and the house are going to be a bad combination doesn't prevent the story from having its effect.

It's scary. Or at least it was to me. Not nightmare-scary, not gory-scary, just very spooky. There were several scenes that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and gave me that crawly sensation, and those are unusual reactions for me. Not that I can't be scared quite easily--I have no tolerance at all for horror films. But this is a different thing, not just plain physical fear, as of monsters or sadistic murderers, but the psychological fear of the malevolent supernatural. It doesn't actually have to do anything much to scare you; it only has to reveal its presence.


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This sounds great. I'd not heard of it before, but I expect it is just the sort of thing I like: scary without being gory.

Searching around a bit, I discover that Martin Scorcese named this film as his scariest movie "of all time". The book looks interesting too: a National Book Award winner.

Onto the queue it goes.

That Scorcese judgement is rather surprising. I would have thought somebody whose films have so much violence in them would have picked something more sensational.

I may have found it less intense than I might have, because I watched it in at least three different sittings, as is often my practice these days due to lack of time. And I saw the scariest parts in broad daylight. Also, I missed a piece of maybe ten minutes or so duration in the early part of the group's sojourn in the house, because of a defect in the DVD. Hmm, I hope you don't get that same copy--I never did report the problem.

The famous short story "The Lottery" is the only Shirley Jackson I've ever read. Like you, I looked around for more information and found this review of The Haunting of Hill House, which makes me want to read it. It gives away a mite more than my review above does, but I think not too much. It also gives some interesting background on Jackson herself.

These days I tend to watch movies fractured into 10-15 minute segments. It is hard to (a) find more time, or (b) stay awake for longer. It is not ideal, especially for films. (Less ambitious media, like television, do not suffer so much, which is why I have been staggering through the BBC production of Bleak House.)

Bleak House would be a good title for a ghost story, come to think of it.

I resisted breaking up movies that way for a long time, but finally talked myself into thinking of it as more like reading a novel than reading a short story. It's definitely not ideal, and affects your enjoyment and appreciation of some movies more than others. I generally don't do it with something that I expect to be *really* good.

That's true, it would be.

Yes, there are some films which I will not watch under these circumstances. I had not thought of the novel analogy, but now that you have mentioned it I am seizing upon it with gusto.

Glad to be of assistance. A proviso that might or might not be applicable to your situation: this only works with movies I'm going to watch alone. My wife is not to be trusted with agreements such as "Well, it's really to late to start a movie, so how about we just watch the first hour tonight and finish it tomorrow night?"

Yes, The Haunting is a primo cinematic ghost story. And the book is well worth reading.

Another comparable and outstanding ghostly film is from that same period: Jack Clayton's "The Innocents," based on James' "The Turn of the Screw" and with a screenplay by Truman Capote.

Funny, but for the 1000's of "horror" films made, there are really only a few good ghost movies. Like Mac, I'm not keen on horror films, but I do like a good creepy, atmospheric ghost story. Literarily speaking, my tastes in that regard have always run more towards M.R. James than to Stephen King, even when I was reading and reviewing such books regularly.

"I resisted breaking up movies that way for a long time, but finally talked myself into thinking of it as more like reading a novel than reading a short story"

I've thought of that comparison too, but then I come back to the intent of the filmmaker: generally speaking, movies are made with the intent of being watched in one sitting, and it seems that in that sense they are more like short stories (although there is the fact that in terms of sheer time considerations it never takes two hours to read a short story.)

Yes, certainly true about the filmmaker's intentions, and this is definitely not optimal, but really it's surprising how little it harms a lot of movies.

Don't know The Innocents. I'll check it out. I've somehow managed in all these years never to have read Turn of the Screw. I like M.R. James, too. I think I've mentioned before the book of ghost stories which someone gave me when I was 12 or so and which I still love. James (M.R.) is in it.

Movies and books with creepy children are just so much creepier than others. I never could get far into Turn of the Screw, book or movie, for that reason.


'dja ever see Village of the Damned? That was really creepy.

Yes. And, yes.


Other good ghost films I'd recommend:

The Changeling (1980 - Peter Medak)
The Others (2001 - Alejandro Amenabar)
The Uninvited (1944 - Lewis Allen)

Not quite up to the level of those three (due mainly to a somewhat heavy-handed racism subplot) but still well worth a look is 1988's 'The Lady in White,' written and directed by Frank LaLoggia. It's a very personal film with an admirable smalltown Ray Bradbury-esque feel. A friend of mine who writes the odd film review said that he couldn't get past the "After School Special" feel, but for myself I found that aspect attractive.

Another very good one is the 1989 UK TV adaptation of Susan Hill's 'The Woman in Black.' For that one, however, I'd advise reading the book first, as it's one of the better ghost novels of the late 20th century.

Finally, one could argue that 'The Blair Witch Project' is a ghost film. In any case, it relies almost entirely on atmosphere and sound effects for its scares, and has its 'R' rating only for language. Of course, it's a tremendously divisive film, with some folks finding it extremely scary, while others describe it as silly and/or boring.

That 1944 one looks especially intriguing. I never saw Blair Witch but it certainly scared the daylights out of a lot of people.

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