Long before Netflix was even a small stream, Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson decided to write about a haunted house after studying nineteenth-century ghost researchers from the Society for Psychic Research, who she believed had not found a true haunted house, but instead, she said they were “several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and background.”
Directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story and the editor of Citizen Kane), the real star of the movie is the house itself. Elliot Scott (who also art directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Labyrinth) designed the brightly lit set, which had no dark corners or places to hide, yet were made to be claustrophobic with ceilings in each set (traditionally, film sets have no ceilings). Wise further added to the effect by using an untested 30mm anamorphic wide-angle Panavision lens that created distortions that were further pushed with low angle shots and strange tracking shots. Upon release, the film was seen as messy and incoherent, yet in the years that followed, it’s been celebrated as one of cinema’s best horror films.
Hill House’s exteriors are actually Ettington Park, a hotel that was once called “the most important and impressive High Victorian house in the county.” Supposedly, Wise met a society of British haunted house devotees, who pointed him to the house.
Starring five-time Tony winner Julie Harris as Eleanor, Claire Bloom CBE as Theodora, Russ Tamblyn (Twin Peaks and Dr. Montague in the new version of The Haunting of Hill House) as Luke Sanderson and Richard Johnson (Dr. Menard from Zombi 2!) as Doctor Markaway, the film begins with Markaway explaining the history of Hill House. It was made by Hugh Crain for his wife, but she died in a carriage crash as she approached the house for the first time. His second wife died falling down the stairs. And his daughter Abigail lived as a recluse there her entire life, giving it to her nurse upon her death. And that nurse? She hung herself. Now, it belongs to Mrs. Sanderson, who allows Markaway to study the house as long as he takes Luke with him.
Theodora is a psychic (also one of the first expressly lesbian characters in cinema) and Eleanor is continually depressed (as was Harris throughout shooting), who saw ghosts as a child and had to care for her mother until her recent death. Despite everyone else’s terror when the house begins to emit loud noises and knocks, Eleanor begins to fall in love with it.
Soon, Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell, Moneypenny from the James Bond series of films) arrives, demands a bed at the center of the haunting and begins to bedevil Eleanor, who is losing herself to either insanity, the house or perhaps both.
Here’s a trivia fact that probably no one but me will care about — Mr. Dudley is played by Valentine Dyall, who is the voice of the mummy in the absolutely unhinged classic, Bizarre/Secrets of Sex. Mrs. Dudley is played by Rosalie Crutchley from Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Amicus’ And Now the Screaming Starts!
My wife would like everyone to know that Theodora has the best clothes ever, because they were designed by Mary Quant, who claimed to have designed the miniskirt and hotpants.
Dedicated to one of horror cinema’s originators, Val Lewton, cinematic masters such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese refer to this as their favorite scary movie. It’s a bit talky, but it’s also packed with moments of unsettling eerieness, particularly as Eleanor’s voice narrates the sinister ending.