Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shirley Jackson's "Hill House"...

The subject of haunted houses is a staple of ghost stories. Usually they are structures old and rundown. They always seem to have a history of despair and death, past events leaving their imprint on the physical structure. They can be rundown and abandoned, or rundown and inhabited, the potential haunts lying quietly still in the deep shadows and dark recesses. 'Still', that is, until something ‘wakes’ them up.

Haunted houses are by far my favorite main component of a good horror tale. You can have your films about Freddie, Jason, and Leather Face. I prefer stories in a paranormal vein. Mysterious bumps and bangs. Random disembodied voices. Doors swinging shut on their own. Cold spots. What scares (and intrigues) me are things heard, but not seen. Felt, but not seen. Then there are the manifestations we do see, but usually out of the corner of our eye. Mists, orbs, apparitions. If science can’t explain it away…fascinating.

The above paragraph is the very first of the masterful haunted house novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”. Of the haunted house variety of ghost stories I have read, it is by far the best. An absolute classic. At the center of the story is ‘Hill House’ (as much a participant in the story as the human characters), an 80 year old mansion, built by the rich Hugh Crain.

After a search and sorting process, anthropologist Dr. John Markway, selects a couple of individuals to accompany him to ‘Hill House’ for an investigation into the paranormal. Theodora, a psychic, and Eleanor, a young woman who has had some poltergeist experiences. The house is said to be extremely haunted, and Markway hopes to prove whether or not ghosts exist. A fourth person is added to the team in the form of the current owner’s nephew, Luke Sanderson (he hopes to one day inherit Hill House).

(Shirley  Jackson)
It is a riveting read from start to finish. Jackson wove a perfect spook tale. Not only does the reader get to know each character and the ‘chinks’ they possess, we get to experience the house right along with them.

For me to give a broader critique would be a disservice to any potential reader(s) of the story. There have been film versions (which I will get into in just a second), but I strongly recommend that you read the novel whether you have seen the film(s), or not. It is only 154 pages in length. I was able to find a PDF copy online, so all you need is a PDF reader (you can download one for free).

You can find the PDF here:

The first (and best) movie production of “The Haunting” was directed by Robert Wise.  If the name rings a bell, he has quite an impressive list of directing accomplishments. Here is a short list of some of my favorites:

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)
“West Side Story” (1961)
“The Sound of Music” (1965)
“The Andromeda Strain” (1971)
“Audrey Rose” (1977)

Wise would produce and direct, “The Haunting”, in 1963. He chose to film it in Black & White, a decision that really paid off. It adds to the eerie quality of the piece. The sets, lighting, and camera angles are masterful. The scary sounds used are also perfect. I heard an interview with some of the actors talking about how Wise would play the various sounds (previously unheard by them) on set to add to the creative mood.

As for the setting for the film, the exterior shots of “Hill House” were shot at a home in Warwickshire, England. Built in 1858, Eatington Park (now known as Ettington Park) is a neo-gothic Mansion near Stratford Upon Avon.

Photos above: The earliest photo I found was the house as it looked in 1946 (top); the photo in the middle is taken from the 1963 film; the bottom photo is how Ettington Park looks today, as a working hotel.  

Like a number of mansions, Ettington Park has its own stories of ghosts. There have been accounts reported of phantom children playing on the grounds, and the manifestation of a mad woman roaming through corridors.

(Left to right:  Bloom, Tamblyn, Harris, Johnson)
“The Haunting” (1963) does not have a huge cast. The prominent players are as follows: Richard Johnson as “Dr. John Markway”; Claire Bloom as “Theodora”/”Theo”; Julie Harris as “Eleanor Lance”; Russ Tamblyn as “Luke Sanderson”. None of them disappoint. Watching the strangers come together for a common purpose, within an environment they know nothing about (except the Doctor, of course). They all are affected by what transpires, but none more so than Eleanor, the weak and naive member of the team who spent years taking care of her dying mother.

Again, I am reluctant to share further as I don’t want to ruin things for any that haven’t seen it yet. It is a prime example of a good ‘haunting’ story that had the luxury of being produced prior to the advent of CGI. The advances in the special effects of today have made movie going a disappointing experience in many cases. Hollywood is relying on the “bells and whistles” rather than the plot and story at the core. Are there effects in the 1963 adaptation of “The Haunting”? Yes, but they act as a story enhancement…they don’t take over like many films of today.

1999 would see a second adaptation, also called “The Haunting”. This is a prime example of what I mentioned about “bells and whistles”. Is it a good looking film? Gorgeous. The set decoration is really beautifully done. The effects are…well, some are good, others are ‘cheesy’. Jan de Bont directed this mess. I have heard that he has a habit of rewriting scripts during filming, and that could explain what happened here. It came across like a bad “Scooby Doo” story.

De Bont had a stellar cast, too. Owen Wilson portrays “Luke Sanderson”; Lili Taylor is “Nell”; Catherine Zeta-Jones is “Theo”; Liam Neeson is “Dr. Marrow”. At first I was ecstatic when I heard that a new film was coming out. Then I read an article about the premiere. Apparently, Neeson left early on, embarrassed and furious about how bad it was. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a bad sign…

My recommendation is:
  • Read the book.
  • See the 1963, Ray Wise directed, “The Haunting”.
  • Only see the 1999, Jon de Bont directed, “The Haunting”, if there is nothing else on…and maybe not even then...

No comments:

Post a Comment