USA / UK, 1963 (MIFF 1995, Robert Wise Tribute)
Director: Robert Wise
After seating the ambitious heights of West Side Story (1961) and steering star vehicles like Two For The Seesaw (1962), Robert Wise's 1963 version of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House offers a pleasing reminder that Wise served his apprenticeship under Val Lewton at RKO. The director's return to the form and formula of these earlier black-and-white mood-laden melodramas takes a kind of post-Freudian spin on the old-dark-house horror sub-genre.
This time around, the group that gathers to investigate the lethal paranormal phenomenon which seems to be inhabiting an 80-year-old Boston mansion includes a supernaturalist professor (Richard Johnson), a materialist-minded heir-apparent (Russ Tamblyn), and a suavely-psychic Greenwich Village lesbian (Claire Bloom). Finally, at the narrative's impressionable, hysterical nerve-centre there frets a mother-dominated virginal spinster played with unsettling sensitivity by Julie Harris.
However, in a way that predicts the home-as-monster pics of the 70s and 80s (The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist), it's Hill House itself and the force inside its Gothic structure that's really the main character-or entity—of Wise's nail-biting chiller. Ever-present but always unseen, the murderously malevolent spirit is made all the more unimaginably manifest through the use of reverberant sound effects, distorting lens work and shadowy cinematography. In The Haunting, what you don't quite know can really hurt you...or at least scare you into conceding the case that in his wide-screen hair-raiser with its disorienting camera angles, spare story-telling style, edgy performances and vertiginously spiralling stair-rase, director Wise just might've achieved what some regard as his overlooked masterpiece.