This classic from 1963 is the epitome of the old fashioned ghost story. It’s purely minimalistic in it’s approach to the supernatural. It’s a film that knows that it’s most powerful special effects are the audiences imagination.
The film follows Eleanor Lance as she joins a quartet as they explore the supposedly haunted Hill House. They are researching paranormal phenomena in an effort to prove that the supernatural does exist. Almost immediately they begin to experience strange occurrences that take a massive toll on Eleanors fragile psyche. Is Eleanor going insane or is the house targeting her?
The characters are fantastically executed. Dr Markway is totally believable as a professor trying to expand the reaches of science. He conveys a reserved yet childlike excitement whenever strange things go bump in the night. He also walks the fine line of showing interest in Eleanor that may be friendly… or may be something more. Theo is one of the researchers and her entire relationship with Eleanor crackles with subtext. She seems to be romantically interested in Eleanor, but refuses to make the first move. She lashes out verbally one second and comforts Eleanor the next. Her performance here is layered and fascinating. At times she’s very mean and nasty, and it’s intriguing to see someone be mean in a movie. Too often everyone is made nice by timid screenwriting. This film gives all their characters the rough edges they deserve.
Eleanor herself is the character the movie explores most deeply. Her inner thoughts are heard in voice over. Her life outside the house is shown and it’s weight is felt. Her rough edges are the ones that are most difficult to get into. She is a deeply innocent and sheltered person who is needy, lost, confused, and clamoring for approval and acceptance. She had real psychological problems that the film cracks open like a walnut. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a woman whose life has always been out of her control. She is a truly atypical protagonist that sets the whole story off balance.
The filmmaking here is incredible. The camera and lighting follows the classic Hollywood style. Even lighting, invisible editing, and smooth camera movements to the point that it looks almost boring. Then when night hits and the supernatural takes over the camera and filmmaking launch into a deeply expressionistic style. The shadows become long and black. The whole set takes on a life like quality. The bed frame that looked normal in the day suddenly looks almost like jaws trying to swallow Eleanor. The camera careens and twists wildly. No more wides and mediums, suddenly the characters are framed in dark aggressive closeups. This style heightens the ghostly tension, but it also mirrors Eleanors psychological state.
All that said the film is very slow paced. It takes a long time to get into it. All the elements that make it original and challenging also make it difficult to get into. It’s not an easy film to embrace. It’s not a film that’s going to embrace jump scares or thrills. It’s a slow burn, and that’s not for everybody. Another detractor is the voice over. The voice over can be very cheesy at times. Some of the voice over is lifted directly from the book. Occasionally it works really well, “ silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Great line. Other lines… not so much.
All in all this is a great movie. It has its drawbacks and deficiencies, but it is well worth watching. A fun side note. This film was directed by Robert Wise. Wise directed West aside Story and the Sound of Music. In between those two films he made this strange, challenging, minimalistic psychological horror film. The range he had as a director was unbelievable.
My cup of tea. A-