Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (NY: Disney Editions; 2015). That's the
re-named third edition of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY:
Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009). Also essential reading is Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized
Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Creepy Old Flicks Part Three: The Uninvited, 13 Ghosts, The Innocents

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In the last post I reviewed the 1963 thriller, The Haunting, a film of special interest to us inasmuch as it was a major source of inspiration for the Haunted Mansion. Earlier this year we had already exhumed The Haunting for a fresh reexamination and found some previously unnoticed connections between the film and the ride. Time now to look at three other must-see (and by Imagineers certainly-seen) haunted house flicks: The Uninvited, 13 Ghosts, and The Innocents. No toes shall be trodden upon this time, I promise.


The Uninvestigated

Foxxy's survey of pre-Mansion screen horror makes only a passing allusion to The Uninvited (1944), which is puzzling.  This appears to be Hollywood's first attempt at telling a haunted house story with a straight face.  The premise is not debunked or played for laughs; instead, we have a well-told tale about a lonely mansion with a mysterious past that is home to some real ghosts. It was a hit. Some consider it the finest haunted house movie ever made. The ending is a little too warm and fuzzy for my tastes, and the scares are not as intense as those in The Haunting or The Innocents, but it's a very good movie.


Now, to business. Is there anything in The Uninvited that looks like it could have been a creative influence on the Haunted Mansion?  I'm going to say yes. To begin with a general observation, I think it's more likely than not that the HM Imagineers took a look at "Windward House" in order to get one interpretation of what a haunted house is supposed to look like. Windward House is in fact the sort of nicely kept, attractive building that Walt demanded, so the film has always provided proof that people would accept a haunted house that didn't look like a Halloween poster.

Pamela looked at Robert and said in a tone almost apologetic,  "They say this matte painting is 
haunted, but it certainly doesn't look like a haunted matte painting."  There was a look of puzzled
 apprehension in her eyes.   Robert shrugged and said in a voice strangely lacking in conviction, "I 
don't believe in haunted matte paintings; there's always a logical explanation for these things." He 
suddenly turned accusatory.  "You've been reading too many stories about haunted matte paintings."
Pam stood her ground:   "You have to admit that pretty strange things go on in some matte paintings."
Just then a shot rang out,  followed by a long scream! "Quick, inside that matte painting!" cried Robert.

Okay, Windward House may owe its exterior existence to a paint brush, but it's what's inside that counts, and the house's interior architecture reminds me of concept art produced by Ken Anderson and by Claude Coats. You can judge for yourselves as we go along.

The entry to Ken Anderson's Ghost House is undeniably similar to the one in Windward House in several ways. He conceived of a front door opening into a big room that transformed the rectangular space into a large oval, with a twisting staircase in the center rising to a balconied second floor. In both houses the look is classic Baroque rather than some form of "haunted house Gothic."


Unlike Windward House, however, the central opening in Anderson's room was
essentially a hole in the ceiling, and the staircase continued up for three floors.


Nevertheless, in one well-known Anderson concept sketch, the look of that stairwell is eerily similar to shots of the Windward House staircase seen throughout the movie, suggesting that visual images from The Uninvited may have exerted an influence, consciously or unconsciously. That sounds pretty mushy, but take a look. There is no denying the striking similarities.


We turn next to one of Claude Coats' best known Mansion artworks, and here again you
have to wonder if the balconies and railings of Windward House may have left an impression.
Coats had architectural training and was as involved in that aspect of the ride as in any other.


Beyond these admittedly airy architectural assessments, do we have anything that looks like a rock solid contribution? I'd say yes, it's safe to say that there's at least one Mansion gag taken directly from The Uninvited. As many of you know, the library scene in the Tokyo Haunted Mansion is far busier with ghostly activity than its Florida twin. For one thing, there's a book lying open on the table with a ghost flipping through it, a simple yet beautifully done effect (and hard to photograph).


In The Uninvited, a journal left on a writing desk is rifled through by one of the ghosts, hoping to
expose Windward's new owners to an important clue for solving the mystery of the house.  The poor ghost
has to do this three or four times in a couple of different scenes before someone finally notices it.


Not only is the gag the same, but no doubt it is accomplished in exactly the same way (with fans, dummy). I'd be truly surprised if this Haunted Mansion effect was not directly inspired by The Uninvited.

Even if this gag only goes back to the early 1980s, when the Tokyo HM was in development, it could still be a contribution from one of the original HM Imagineers, because some of them also worked on the Tokyo version. But it doesn't matter, because it's also possible that later Imagineers were inspired by The Uninvited. One place you may see such a thing is on the animated Leota gravestone at WDW, installed in 2002. Above the fireplace at Windward House is a carving that is strikingly similar to the figure of Leota. See for yourself. The resemblance is uncanny, but on the other hand it is in some ways a pretty generic "classical" face, but on the other hand this particular face is found in a haunted house, but . . . and now I've run out of hands, so I'll just say that the Leota tombstone is presently down in my book in the "solid maybe" column and let it go at that.


UPDATE: A friend points out that the Leota face does indeed seem to reflect a 
standard design. You find it elsewhere. Here it is on a 19th c. mirror handle:


At the end of the day, when it comes to possible influence on the Haunted Mansion, The Uninvited is pretty small
potatoes when compared to The Haunting. Still, it's probably safe to say that it provided some inspiration for the ride.


13 Ghosts

It's 1960 and William Castle has found yet another way to suck loose change out of kids' pockets. This time it's a low-budget haunted house flick filmed in "Illusion-O," a typically schlocky Castle gimmick. The story in 13 Ghosts is pretty silly, and the special effects are only "special" in the same sense as "Special Olympics," but all is forgiven, because it's entertaining enough to carry you the necessary 84 minutes. Your eyes shall roll, but there are one or two legitimate scares (although not from the ghosts), and it's got a nice twist ending (even if it gets started a little too early). You also get a darn good performance from 11-year old Charles Herbert, a 21-year old Jo Morrow to ogle, and of course, the lovely Margaret Hamilton at no extra charge. Oh, and there's the telegram delivery guy near the beginning. Damn, he's good.

If such be not enough to persuade you, listen as the Ghost Host himself enthusiastically recommends the film:



I mentioned this one very briefly in our first Creepy Old Flicks post, but I must confess that I had not seen the movie in its entirety and merely passed on some observations by Disney historian Ed Squair. Seeing as how we know with certainty that Walt and some of his Imagineers saw the film together, I finally broke down and got a copy and did a little investigating of my own, like I should have in the first place. Yowza, I wish I had seen 13 Ghosts earlier, because I now think this film was a major influence in defining the Haunted Mansion. In fact, the film and the ride have a couple of things in common so big and so obvious that no one has noticed them. Here's the first:

The house in 13 Ghosts is haunted because some guy went out and collected ghosts from all over the
world and brought them there, some of them scary and some of them silly in a macabre sort of way.


That is, of course, the basic premise of the Haunted Mansion as well. And remember, this was originally Walt's idea. Here he is in 1965:

"We haven't got the ghosts in there yet, but, we're out collecting the ghosts. We're going to bring ghosts from all over the
world, and we're making it very attractive to them, hoping, you know, that they'll want to come and stay at Disneyland."

Actually, Walt was already halfway there by the time he saw 13 Ghosts. In 1958 he had given an interview for the BBC, expressing his sympathies for all the ghosts displaced from their ancestral homes by the London blitz and the new construction which followed. Knowing that ghosts by their very nature need an audience, he issued an invitation to homeless spirits everywhere to come to the retirement home he was going to build for them in Disneyland. What 13 Ghosts added to this was the idea of aggressively going out and collecting the ghosts rather than merely extending a passive invitation and hoping for the best.

Since we know Walt watched the movie with the express purpose of looking for usable ideas, you can easily imagine him thinking, "Hey, that's good. Ghosts collected from all over the world. We can use that." The idea was put to immediate use, too. It's probably no coincidence that the future attraction was regularly described as "the world's greatest collection of ghosts," beginning with the 1961 souvenir guide book. That was the first time the public was told anything specific about the character of the Haunted House. In a 1962 brochure, we find Walt's "talent scouts" out there "searching" and "gathering," collecting occupants for what is now called the Haunted Mansion.


If Walt thought borrowing the premise of 13G was a good idea, Dick Irvine apparently thought it was a GREAT idea. Irvine was VP of Design at WED (WDI) from 1952 until 1973. Basically, that means he was in charge of all the Disneyland attractions. He was the boss to whom the HM Imagineers were immediately accountable, and he had ideas of his own that were sometimes thrown into the creative mix. Squair suspects that Irvine came up with a way to use the suffocating canopy bed gag after seeing it in 13 Ghosts, where it plays a major role. I think Irvine took more than an isolated gag: He took the premise of 13 Ghosts and ran further with it than either Walt or the others did.

The ghost-collecting scientist in 13 Ghosts is said to have captured the ghosts, using a viewing device that gave him a certain mastery over them. Meanwhile, the aforementioned "Illusion-O" consisted of printing red ghosts against a blue background in the film, so that when the audience viewed them with a red filter they were visible, while the blue filter hid them. You were handed a viewing device with the two filters when you bought your ticket. (By the way, the gimmick works, although you can see them without the red filter, just not as clearly.)


Irvine came up with his own idea for a ghost-capturing device. It was a trap baited with something he called "nectarplasm" or "nectoplasm." The ghost dematerialized, went in to the trap, drank the nectoplasm, changed color, and was now visible and unable to de-materialize. That's how the Mansion would get its ghosts, see? With his hokey capturing device and color-changing ghosts for purposes of visibility, Irvine was simply adapting the formula of 13 Ghosts in greater detail. Mercifully, his idea was not used. Ye gods, I think Irvine out-Castled Castle with this one.


13 Ghosts may well have been the inspiration for another major concept: the idea of numbering your spooks. What is more basic to the Haunted Mansion than the fact that it has 999 ghosts? Even better, the numbers serve almost exactly the same function in both the movie and the ride. As you know, there are 999 ghosts in the HM, but there's room for an even thousand, and the thousandth could be you if you aren't careful. In 13 Ghosts there are actually only twelve for almost the entire film, but it's made explicitly clear that there are destined to be thirteen. The question is, which of the living characters is going to end up as the unlucky thirteenth? (You don't find out until the end.) It's another match if you ask me.


As a matter of fact, the adaptation may originally have been even more precise. Already in 1962, Disney publications began claiming that the Mansion will be home to "1001 'actively retired' ghosts," perhaps following the lead of 13 Ghosts in numbering ahead of time the house's final occupant (will YOU be the destined 1001st?). If that's how the number was going to be understood, then eventually someone realized that the gag is clearer and works better if you simply start with the current census and mutter menacingly about adding one more (999 at present, but room for a thousand, bwahahaha). This improvement came quite late. The oldest reference I have seen to 999 ghosts is on this sign.

The trouble is, no one seems to remember exactly when it went up.
Estimates vary, but I suspect it was late in 1968 or early in 1969.


So it looks as though we have William Castle to thank for giving us (1) a house haunted by an international collection of ghosts, (2) ominously
numbered with a spot reserved for one more. Those contributions are the biggees, but there are also a few littlees. I think you can make a
case that Marc Davis got some ghost ideas from 13 Ghosts. For example, at one point Davis sketched a ghost lion and lion tamer.


That's a concept so far off the beaten path that I think it's safe to say he got the idea from 13 Ghosts:


Like ALL the ghosts, they look better in the artwork used for the posters and the opening credits than they do in the movie.


And as long as we're looking at the lion ghost artwork, I'll put up this Davis
sketch as well, without comment. You can make up your own minds. Strictly fwiw.


Anyway, back to the lion tamer. Since Davis's idea was not used, the fact that it happened to have been inspired by 13 Ghosts is pretty minor
league trivia. Ah, but once we concede that Davis took one ghost idea from the film, the door is open to the possibility that he borrowed
others. We might be able to solve a little mystery associated with the popular Magic from the Haunted Mansion souvenir book.


On page 46 there is an illustration that has long puzzled Mansion fans. It appears to be a sketch of the hanging Ghost Host character,
except that it's female! There is no evidence anywhere else that this gender was ever considered for the role, so . . . what gives?


A lot of the sketches in this book were based directly on Marc Davis concept art, as we have seen before.
If this one was too, then it may not depict the figure in the stretching gallery at all but an entirely
separate character. It may in fact be a Davis adaptation of #8 in the 13 Ghosts artwork.


Here's a side-by-side. I'm impressed with the way the hat seems to mimic the hair and the rib cage
seems to mimic the clothing on the 13G ghost. But as always, you can make up your own minds.


Lastly, we have seen that Davis wanted to include a decapitated knight in the HM but seemed to have trouble finding a good way to incorporate him. According to our reconstruction, the breakthrough came when Davis turned the Jailer-and-Prisoner duo into a trio by making the jailer an executioner as well, thus permitting the decapitated knight to join the ensemble. It's only speculation, but I wonder if the fact that one of the 13 Ghosts is a headsman may have triggered this happy idea. After all, it's not as if "the ghostly headsman" is a stock character.


All in all, not bad for a trashy little horror flick.

The Innocents

This 1961 adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is on everyone's list of "best all-time haunted house movies," and it's at the top of not a few of them. It holds up beautifully after all these years, and I think it deserves its reputation. Very scary, thanks in large part to stunningly good performances by the two children (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens). They'll creep you out every time.


The Imagineers must have seen it, but did it influence the Mansion in any way? Meh. This time the results are meager indeed. The only thing that looks to me like it may have contributed something is the chilling scene about two-thirds of the way through the film in which the governess (Deborah Kerr) hears strange sounds and decides to investigate. Up the stairs she goes, no safety bar in sight, clutching her candelabrum . . .

There's a hallway up there with many doors, and as she proceeds she continues to hear strange sounds, voices that whisper and echo, and distorted laughter. She's sure the sounds are coming from the various rooms as she passes along, and she tries the doors. Some are locked, some are not. Whenever she does open a door, the sounds cease. It seems the ghosts are playing with her.


In some ways, this hallway scene is much closer to the Mansion's Corridor of Doors than the hallways of Hill House in The Haunting. Consider this: In both The Innocents and the Mansion we have weird sounds, voices, and ghostly laughter emanating from behind each door in an upstairs hallway as we wend our way past. Plus, some of the creaking and rattling sounds are also similar to what we hear in the COD, although I wouldn't press this detail too hard. After all, a creaking door is a creaking door is a creaking door. As always, judge for yourselves:

Creepy Sounds from the hallway of doors in The Innocents

Creepy Sounds from the Corridor of Doors in the Haunted Mansion

It's quite possible that this scene served as an inspiration not only for the Haunted Mansion but for The Haunting, which came out two years later. Apart from this one scene, however, I can't see anything in The Innocents that looks like an influence.

***********************

That's enough movies for awhile. Next time, it's back to the Mansion as we try to
imagine how an idea that wasn't used would have been used if it had been used.



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Haunting: It Stinks

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The relevance of this particular post to this particular blog may be questioned. It's true that no film or story or painting or anything else you can name exercised a more profound and a more direct influence on the development of the Haunted Mansion than Robert Wise's 1963 thriller, The Haunting, as your blog administrator and another blogger have, I think, sufficiently demonstrated. It's also true that the kind of people who read this blog are also the kind of people who have likely seen The Haunting, and not a few own a copy. Nevertheless, a film review per se does not fall under the rubric of "ruminations and revelations concerning the history and artistry of the Haunted Mansion." If I had to, I suppose I could come up with some sort of feeble pretext:

"Artistic influence can be drawn from good and bad art alike. In the case of the Haunted Mansion, the only common denominator is popular
ghost lore. Take The Haunting, for example. Its influence has nothing to do with the quality of the film. It's actually a terrible movie."

I could also claim, with some justification, that I'm performing a valuable service here for the human race, but the plain truth is, I just need to get this thing off my chest: The Haunting isn't just overrated. As a movie, it absolutely stinks. I'm sure many of you disagree. That's okay; I take comfort in the thought that there may also be sighs of relief from readers who feared they were the only ones in the world who don't like The Haunting. Come out of the closet, people, a new day is a-dawning.

Lord knows I have tried to at least like the film. After all, it's perched comfortably in the upper 80's on the Tomatometer, and there is no end of five-star reviews laced with superlatives like "masterpiece," "best ever," and "flawless performances." Top film makers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have saluted it. Film blogs and horror blogs rhapsodize over it. In short, praise rains down upon The Haunting from all sides like a poltergeist stone shower. Not only that, but as a confirmed Mansionhead I feel it is almost my duty to genuflect before this movie.

Well, pardon my upturned finger and my downturned thumb, but (1) the characters are unbelievable and unlikable, (2) it doesn't really have a plot, (3) the Nelson Gidding screenplay is so poorly thought out that it virtually guarantees weak performances from the hapless actors who have to mouth it, and (4) Robert Wise's directing is good in some areas and embarrassingly bad in others. Granted, there are three or four good scares in the movie (a better score than most), and yes, the cinematography ranges from very good to beyond great, but I have always thought that The Haunting taken as a whole is a crashing bore.

* * * Spoilers Ahead * * *

Dead on Arrival

Problems with Gidding's screenplay are there from the get-go, as Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) tells us the house is 90 years old and then gives us a narrative of events that cannot possibly be squeezed into 90 years. We're also told that the house was "born bad," that it was evil from the moment it was built. Thanks a lot. Now we're deprived of any fun we may have had in figuring out the story behind the house and how it came to be haunted. As it turns out, there is no story to discover, and we don't even get to discover that, since we are told as much, point blank, right at the beginning. What a stupid thing to do.

Not to get bogged down in details, but somewhere at some time this man did something wrong

Well, maybe we can still find out something interesting about the house. Let's see. There is a litany of deaths and suicides associated with the place, but all of them are for reasons unknown, and none of them are connected. We are given to understand that its builder, Hugh Crane, hated people and was obsessed with biblical hellfire and damnation, but on the other hand he built the house for his family, he was "greatly embittered" when his wife died (the house's first victim), and Crane himself died in a suspicious drowning accident years later. In other words, even he must be regarded as a victim. Most of this we are told explicitly in the first fifteen minutes. (We learn very little after that.) Also, the film never specifies the nature of the evil of Hill House. It's just evil. Apparently that's supposed to be detail enough. Scraping it all together, here's the absolute maximum we can deduce about our haunted mansion:

Somewhere at some time by some means builder Crane must have unwittingly released (not created) some sort of supernatural Thingie that is evil in some sort of unspecified way. Said Thingie is dangerous and still possesses Crane's house, which is also haunted by his ghost and probably a few others who died there. It's not clear if Crane's ghost can still be distinguished from the evil Thingie itself. We also know that the "heart" of Hill House is the nursery where Crane's daughter grew up and eventually died as an old woman while calling for help, but we never learn why that's so important or anything else about it.

That's it, thrillseekers. That pathetic paragraph is an exhaustive explanation of the mystery of Hill House. They say that less is more, but this is a joke, a cruel joke, inasmuch as Dr. Markway, the lead investigator, drops some hints in the opening scenes which suggest that he thinks he has the place figured out, and throughout the movie he claims openly, repeatedly and insistently that they're on the verge of a major breakthrough. In short, the audience has every reason to believe that the mystery of the house will be completely revealed at some point, but it never happens.


Dr. Marquack

This Markway character is supposed to be the resident expert on the supernatural. What he really is, is a walking fountain of BS. The first time he meets the ladies on his investigative team 
he makes a lame ghost joke (one of many in the film, I'm afraid), and one of them says, "Don't be ghoulish." Dr. M pounces, "No no! you mustn't confuse 'ghoulish' and 'ghostly.' The word 'ghoulish' is used to describe a feeling of horror, often accompanied by intense cold.  It has nothing to do with ghosts. Ghosts are a visible thing." Alas, everything else Professor Gasbag has to say on these topics is equally idiotic, and he won't shut up. He's not even consistent in his blatherings. In one scene he'll pontificate on why the supernatural is nothing to be afraid of, and in another he'll warn of the perils that come with encountering the supernatural.

 "Not only that, but if you like your insurance you can keep it."

Check out this typical exchange between Markway and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the remaining member of the team:
.         Markway:      "Psychic phenomena are subject to certain laws."
.         Luke:            "And just what are these laws
?"
.         Markway:      "You won't know until you break them."
.         Luke:            "Wait, professor, aren't those two completely different uses of the word 'law'?"

I'm just kidding about the last part. Luke doesn't say that. That was me, yelling at the screen. Markway is such an ass. Would it have been so hard for Wise to read a book or an article or something, just to see what serious or even not-so-serious psychic investigators actually think?

Not content with saying stupid things, Markway and his group go about their "scientific investigation" of Hill House by violating every conceivable rule about scientific investigations. It's only a movie, so I'm willing to cut them a lot of slack in this area, but the film abuses our generosity. At one point some mysterious writing appears on a wall. Do they attempt to preserve it? No. Photograph it? Nope. Sketch it? Nope.
They casually erase it. To be fair, before they erase it they at least try to determine what the lettering is made of. They do this by licking it. Based on the taste test, they decide it's either (1) chalk or (2) something like chalk. Say, that's some impressive scientific investigation you've got going there, Doc.


At another point Dr M excitedly finds a cold spot and triumphantly declares, "I guarantee it won't register on any thermometer." Call me picky, but shouldn't Mr. Scientific be getting out a thermometer in order to demonstrate this? You know, for the record? I can just see his final report. "I found a genuine, supernatural cold spot. There was no need to measure it with a thermometer, and I didn't bother, because I just knew it would not register." Yeah, that'll win over the skeptics on the review panel.

If you want to see a credible representation of a haunted house investigation, you're better off watching Scooby-Doo.


Poor, Poor Eleanor

Next, let's look at the main character, Eleanor "Nell" Lance, played by Julie Harris.  Nell is very useful if anyone should happen to ask you what a Drama Queen is.  If that happens, what you do is, you first cite one of the following . . .

  • "A person given to often excessively emotional performances or reactions"
  • "A person who treats even the mildest or most trivial problems as if they were major crises"
  • "A person who habitually responds to situations in a melodramatic way"
. . . and then you wrap it up by saying, "you know, like Eleanor in The Haunting."


Her neurotic antics begin early and get continually worse.  It's bad enough we have to see her and hear her, but we're even forced to listen to a narration of her incoherent thoughts throughout the movie, complete with echo chamber.  Nell's character would have been excusable if she were 14 years old, but she's a grown woman, an emotionally immature attention whore, completely self-centered.
 And here's the hell of it: for once, the Drama Queen happens to be right: at Hill House it really is all about herThat is just plain mean.  Every inch of me wants to smack Nell upside the head and tell her to grow up and join the human race (in the name of truth and justice), but the idiosyncratic supernatural setting of the film forbids it. I guess Hill House really is evil.


Want to hear something funny? All three of the other main characters think Eleanor is smokin' hot and would just love to get inside her panties.


"Uncle Owen, This R2 Unit Has a Bad Motivator"

The female characters are maddeningly inconsistent. 
From scene to scene you might as well toss a coin if you want to anticipate what their reactions are going to be. Here are a few examples, but there's plenty more where they come from.

1) Theo (Clare Bloom) is a "sensitive," and she realizes with horror almost from the beginning that the house "wants" Eleanor, that it's "calling" her, but when the house starts doing things that confirm precisely that, Theo suspects that Nell is just doing stuff to call attention to herself.

2) In some scenes Nell is astonishingly courageous and charges right up to the Ghostly Presence and angrily tells it to STFU, but in other scenes you find her whimpering under the covers if the same Ghostly Presence so much as clears its throat. (I'm wondering, does Wise know that there is a difference between neurotic and psychotic? )

3) Nell is justifiably scared spitless when all hell breaks loose right outside of the room she and Theo are in. The door bangs like gun shots, the knob turns, and the air is unnaturally cold. When it all dies down, Nell laughs and says that they're acting like a couple of "big babies," since after all "it's just a noise." Yeah, just a noise like a Pearl Harbor reenactment in the hallway right outside your room, in a house that you already know is alive and out to get you. And besides, what's this "just a noise" crap? They saw the doorknob twisting and the air temperature must have dropped 30 degrees. Please, don't tell me she's "only trying to convince herself." What she says is too jawdroppingly stupid for anyone even to pretend to think, let alone say out loud. Good Lord, an axe murderer banging on your door is "just a noise" until he breaks through. (I'm wondering, does Wise know that there is a difference between neurotic and dumber than a handball? )

4) The "Like Nell/Hate Nell" switch in Theo's brain evidently has a short in it.
  

Notta Lotta Plot, Eh?

Let's take a look at the plot of The Haunting. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

  • We are told that Hill House is haunted.
  • A team of investigators tries to find out if Hill House is haunted.
  • They find out it is.
That's all, boys and girls. There are some things that look like plot developments laying around, but none of them go anywhere. Dr. Markway and Eleanor start falling in love. So? There is no reason for us to care, which is good, since literally nothing comes of it. There is also an unstated lesbian subplot, and some people want to give the 1963 film points for bravery here, even though there is an unstated lesbian subplot in Rebecca (1940) and in The Uninvited (1944), and unlike The Haunting, in those films the subplot actually matters. In The Haunting, Theo's lesbianism makes precisely as much difference to the story as which side of her head she parts her hair on. There's also a lot of bickering and sniping between the characters (usually Nell's fault), but none of it is ever about anything that matters. That is to say, (1) none of it reveals anything new or important about any of the characters and (2) none of it moves the story along. It's just there to make it look like something is happening in the movie.

About the ending. This is one of those pictures where the survivors stand around saying things like "She's happier now. It was what she wanted," and other things they can't possibly know. Even with this hoary patch-it-together device in place, the film still can't find its way to a coherent conclusion. Luke, the obligatory skeptic of the group, now understands that the house is thoroughly evil and says it should be burned down and the land "sown with salt." As he stands to inherit the place, there's no reason to think he can't make good on his threat. But Hill House has sucked Eleanor into its evil embrace, and now she too haunts the place. Theo tells us that the house now belongs to Eleanor too, and "perhaps she's happier." Okay, so poor, tormented Eleanor may finally have found peace as one of the haunts of Hill House, and her ghost tells us that she might do it for "another 90 years" (this chick will NOT shut up). But wait, how can she be at peace?  Aren't we given to believe that Hill House is still a place of remorseless evil?  And didn't the heir to the estate hint just now that he intends to wipe it off the face of the earth?

Crap writing, that's what that is.  I have discovered that this movie actually sounds better if you turn your brain down to low.


Character Flaws

Let's talk very briefly about character development in The Haunting. Or more accurately, the lack thereof. Nell is exactly the same neurotic, self-centered bore at the moment she dies that she was at the beginning of the movie. As for the others, well, the only noticeable development among them all is that Luke-the-skeptic ends up as Luke-the-believer (I know, I was shocked too). Oh yes, and Dr. Markway's skeptical wife is convinced as well. She's a totally unnecessary character who shows up three-fourths of the way through the movie.


After some unspecified rough treatment from the house, the sneering Mrs. M ends up a sober convert. Since Luke is already there to handle that chore, I don't know why we needed Grace Markway. Possibly they thought that two examples of the same cliché would have greater impact than just one. Still, I kind of like Grace. Maybe it's because she's the only character in the group who doesn't have the hots for Eleanor. (She's not a lesbian, so I guess that explains it.)


Wise Cracks

Okay, I hear you out there: Now wait just a doggone minute, Mister Grumpypants!  Isn't this the film praised to the skies for creating a truly scary haunted house without showing us a single ghost? for creating a believable mood solely through sound effects and brilliant cinematography?

Yes it is, and all of that is true; all of that praise is deserved. The film has lots of atmosphere and is a treat for the eye. So what? How many times have you read (or said) that no amount of gorgeous scenery and dazzling effects and meticulous craftsmanship can save a movie if it doesn't have a good story with believable characters that make you care about them? Is there anything in film criticism more axiomatic than that? Over the years, how many movies have you panned or heard panned on this basis?  "Looks good, but it has no heart."

Wise's direction in this film is overrated, anyway. He must have sleepwalked through this project. The film editing is brilliant in isolated spots, but terrible in others. Take the scene early on in which Eleanor argues with her sister and brother-in-law about borrowing the car.


I triple-dog-dare anyone who thinks this movie is a flawless masterpiece to come down here and defend this scene. It's dreadful, not even good enough for a bad TV show. Nor do things improve much as the film progresses. Dialogue between characters is consistently stiff and phony. Whenever someone is rambling along and someone else interrupts, the interruptee obligingly stops dead right there in mid-sentence, before the interrupter's first word is even finished. No overlapping. Why, it's almost as if they were reading a script. And you know how people sometimes make little jokes to lighten the mood when they're nervous or under stress? Well, Wise thinks they also do this when they're in the grip of extreme terror.  Not buying it.

Lots of scenes are unnecessary. Some are little more than showcases for Dr. Markway's 10-watt rambles or new opportunities for Luke to tell us for the umpteenth time that he doesn't believe any of that stuff. Strictly fast-forward button bait. I don't blame the actors. They do about as well as can be expected, given the lousy scripting and directing.

It helps if you recognize that The Haunting was just a quickie Wise did between two major projects, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). That may explain why so much of his direction here is slipshod. He's a good director when he wants to be. This time out he didn't.


The Emperor Has No Clothes

I realize I haven't offered any explanation yet as to why this film's reputation is sky high. I'm thinking the reason people praise
The Haunting so extravagantly is that they are aware that others have done so, and they don't want to look like the only person in the room who can't recognize greatness when they see it, and so they add their voice to the chorus, and the whole thing becomes a self-perpetuating myth. B
efore this groupthink stampede began, 'way back when the film was new, it garnered its fair share of bad press, but nowadays the Internet is awash in glowing reviews. Please. We can all agree that The Haunting is technically brilliant in some important ways, but we should also be able to agree that that's not enough to make a good movie.


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So if The Haunting is not "the best haunted house movie of all time," what is? In our next outing, as we assess the possible influence of several other films, and "best ever" may be among them.