While most horror films today rely on gore, special effects and sadism, the 1963 film The Haunting proves that sometimes less is indeed more. This film uses intelligent writing, excellent acting, and camera angles and lighting to create what may be the greatest haunted house tale ever.

Based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting opens with Doctor John Markway (Richard Johnson) almost gleefully describing the history of murder and suicide that makes up the infamous Hill House in New England. Doctor Markway intends to stay in the house, with several associates, to prove the existence of the supernatural. He gets permission to stay there from Hill House's elderly owner, provided he brings her nephew Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a ne'er do well who hopes to inherit and live off of the house.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is a miserable woman: She spent her adult life taking care of her mother, who passed away two months ago; she lives with her sister and family, who dictate what she can do; and she's never had a real vacation. Eleanor actually sneaks off to join Doctor Markway on his "experiment." The fourth member of the Doctor's team is Theorora (Claire Bloom), a psychic and free spirit who's very attracted to Eleanor.

Then there is Hill House itself. From the outside, the massive house looms over all who approach it. Inside, while there is nothing overtly menacing, the camera gives a creepy feeling to the marble statues that loom, the mirrors that seem to appear out of nowhere, the doors that tend to slowly swing open and closed. As Theodora observes, " Haven't you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just... catch something out of the corner of your eye?"

The heart of The Haunting is Eleanor. A woman haunted before she ever arrives at Hill House, Eleanor has her own fears and issues. Selected for a recorded encounter with a poltergeist when young, Eleanor is more obsessed with her own mother issues, her attraction to Dr. Markway (not knowing he is married), her feeling she should flee from Hill House, and her conviction that she somehow belongs there. Julie Harris does a wonderful job making Eleanor both childlike from her isolation and tired and aged from her trials and tribulations. Even her voiceover, reflecting her inner thoughts, may have felt forced if it wasn't so compelling. The rest of the cast is equally good, providing a gamut of responses to the things that go bump in the house.

And The Haunting is scary. Most of the scares come from the application of simple sounds and the reaction of the people in the house (usually Eleanor and Theodora) to them. Chills also come as Eleanor's mental state becomes more and more fragile, making every shadow and mirror a source of terror. The end result is scarier than the gallons of fake blood and gratituous sadism that sadly seem to dominate so many contemporary horror movies.

The Haunting is a great movie for Halloween, a great horror movie, and a great movie overall. While you need to be careful to avoid the absolutely terrible remake, the original film is a true classic. Watch The Haunting and discover the truth of Doctor Markway's statement: "It was an evil house from the beginning -- a house that was born bad."

Overall grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch

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