Saturday, May 26, 2012

#133: The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

I'm never going to argue that life in America in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s was superior to the present, even after a day spent reading Internet comments sections and attempting to avoid the intrusive corporate advertisements that have infected nearly every aspect of public and communal life. Black people had to drink out of separate fountains in many states less than a generation before I was born, and much worse. It was no picnic for gay people, either, and women weren't expected or encouraged to do anything but stay home and serve their husbands and children. Let's set all that big, big stuff aside, though, and acknowledge that change isn't always progressive. Not every technological breakthrough and cultural shift should be embraced. Some modern changes have created a more dehumanized, robotic social existence, one that values our purchases and ever-increasing rate of consumption and isolation and homogeneity instead of genuine human experience. The second you leave your home or turn on any electrical device inside the home, you're no longer Bob Wilhoite of Des Moines, you're divorced white male American between the ages of 18 and 34 with some college and a boat. Sometimes, it feels like we're all inhabitants of a fish farm owned by Monsanto or Facebook or Exxon or Wal-Mart or Chevron, swimming from one side of our tank to another.
The difference between movie theaters and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, then and now, is for me the most vivid illustration of negative social change. The old movie palaces had one large screen and a large marquee. Sure, they were businesses that wanted to make a profit, but most of them were owned and operated by movie lovers and the focus was on the film that was playing at that particular time. When you walk into those old movie palaces, the entrance into the theater is the central focal point of attention. It's the first thing you see when you walk in the doors, if you're looking straight ahead. The concession stands are on the side. As you sit in the theater, waiting for the movie to start, no advertisements play. You talk to the people you're with or people-watch or sit and wait with anticipation. Now, a theater marquee is a busy but tiny LED screen and the first thing you see when you walk in is a large concession stand. The focal point is candy. The screens are like afterthoughts, darkly nestled on the sides and behind the popcorn. The screens are anonymous, uniform places with 20 minutes of Coke and car ads and promotions for shitty TV shows pelting you with noise before the trailers start. The projection is often dim and the sound is sometimes bad. If the screen next to yours is showing a loud scene and the scene you're watching is quiet, the noise bleeds through. Mainstream Hollywood movies are loud, dull, anthologies of monochromatic advertisements, noises, one-liners, and badly edited climaxes instead of works of craftsmanship, art, entertainment, and pleasure. I could keep these obvious observations going, but you get the point.
This long digression is my sloppy way into writing about one of my favorite haunted house movies, Robert Wise's 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, simply titled The Haunting. I first saw this movie in ideal but sadly rare and nostalgic circumstances. I am lucky enough to live in a city with an old-fashioned movie palace that shows classic films in the summer. The seats are a bit uncomfortable for the modern lazy fatasses we have become (I'm including myself in this condemnation, or at least my stomach) but everything else about this place makes me feel relaxed, happy, and wistfully, romantically bittersweet. To put it much more crudely, I have a serious hard-on for old movie theaters and a blinding murderous hatred for modern multiplexes. On one of those oppressive, humid Texas July nights you sort of get used to after four or five years of them, my wife and I sat in the balcony of this historic theater and watched The Haunting in the dark on a huge screen with a rapt audience of old people, young people, and teenagers. Yeah, teenagers. It was a great experience. That movie works so well in that environment, and I was filled with a warmth for my fellow men and women that's pretty unusual for an angry loner such as myself. I don't think the audience, especially the youngest members, would have reacted with such reverence and attentive interest if the film was playing on a multiplex screen. The combination of a great old movie and a great old movie palace creates its own magic voodoo sauce that can't be replicated. It's like the difference between a cathedral and some Joel Osteen mega-church.
Would the film retain its power on my television? Last night, I gave it another whirl, and The Haunting does lose a little atmosphere and aural dynamism on a TV screen, but overall, Wise's 1963 film holds up nicely. This is such a gorgeous, atmospheric, skillfully photographed and edited movie with a great sense of humor and wonderful production design. It's a dinosaur in today's Brett Ratner universe, but dinosaurs are pretty awesome and would eat us and stomp us to death if they still existed, so there. Wise wisely (groan) chose to shoot in black and white, which contributes to the film's Gothic look and claustrophobic feel, as well as the beautiful contrast between light and shadow. Besides the way it tells its story, The Haunting is compulsively watchable from a purely visual standpoint.
For those unfamiliar with the novel or the movie (I'm ignoring the 1999 remake, mostly because I've never seen it), The Haunting is about a house that was "born bad," an evil place built in the 1800s in an isolated stretch of New England countryside by a disturbed, antisocial man. The house experiences years of tragedies, unexplained events, and insane inhabitants before passing down to a distant relative, an aged Boston socialite who hires a strange couple to keep it in good shape but makes sure no one lives in it. (This history of the house is presented by Wise in a delightfully creepy ten-minute opening sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film.) A paranormal researcher, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), convinces the old woman to let him take some colleagues to the house to try to capture scientific proof of its infamous legend. She relents on the condition that his research is not publicized until after he leaves the house and that her ne'er-do-well nephew Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) join the team. Luke is set to inherit the house after his aunt passes away, and she wants him to get serious, his only interests being the mixing and consumption of alcoholic drinks, one-liners about attractive women, and the benefits he will reap when he uses the haunted reputation of the house to turn it into a cash cow. One by one, Dr. Markway's colleagues drop out of the project because they're scaredy cats. Markway ends up with a small crew consisting of himself, Luke, Theo (Claire Bloom), and Eleanor (Julie Harris). Theo has ESP, while Eleanor was chosen because her family experienced a poltergeist phenomenon when she was a child. Theo is a rarity in a 1963 Hollywood film, a sympathetic lesbian. She is the most likable, smartest, funniest, and most complex character, and though the film never goes so far as to use the words "lesbian" or "homosexual" in the script (still too taboo for 1963 America), the screenplay makes it explicitly clear. Eleanor is also a complex character and the story's main focus. She's a mousy, naive, virginal doormat who was walked on by her mother for most of her life and is now controlled by her sister, but she has a wild internal life and some unsettling mental issues, and an explosive anger that comes out at inopportune moments when her suppression of emotions becomes too much to stand. She feels the deepest connection to the house, and the house sinisterly reciprocates. Besides the tension caused by the creepy house, drama seethes beneath the camaraderie of the little group. These four people are a powder keg of repressed sexuality. Theo is attracted to Eleanor, Eleanor is attracted to and repulsed by Theo, the married Dr. Markway is attracted to Eleanor, Eleanor is attracted to the married Dr. Markway, Luke is attracted to both women but is even more attracted to gin and beer, and Theo is attracted to poking holes in all that concealed repression. It's a great mini-drama inside the large Gothic drama of the haunted house. Or maybe it's the other way around.
 Some of the dialogue in The Haunting is a product of its time, but the jolts, scares, and atmosphere of claustrophobic repression haven't aged at all. This is such an effective, creepy, scary, enjoyable movie. Director Robert Wise, who died at age 91 in 2005, was a skilled craftsman, a Hollywood jack of all trades who directed horror, science fiction, film noir, musicals, historical epics, war films, comedies, dramas, bio-pics, adventures, gangster films, and westerns. Besides his work on The Haunting, he's best known for The Curse of the Cat People, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Desert Rats, Executive Suite, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Odds Against Tomorrow, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, The Hindenburg, and the first Star Trek movie. That's a crazy CV.

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