Robert Wise's 1963 frightfest is an undoubted classic and is perhaps the greatest haunted house film ever made. As with a lot of classic films it can be difficult and often impossible to sift through the years of influence and development and see the film in the same way a viewer would have in 1963. Indeed it is often the huge influence of these classic movies that is their downfall. The number of films which have built upon theses films over the years can often make a one time game changing film appear staid and uninspiring to a modern viewer. I remember watching Taxi Driver for the first time and thinking its good but what's the big deal and in some ways this is true of The Haunting as well. However if you are a horror fan this is a film that demands your attention primarily due to the influence it has cast over the genre but also because if you give it the time it deserves this film is so well crafted it still provides a rich, atmospheric and creepy experience.
The Haunting was the scariest film of its time and while it has lost some of its impact over the last 48 years it is not hard to see why an early 60s audience found it so compelling. Robert Wise created a forbidding, brooding film which was one of the first to realize that less is more. Wise started a trend that continues to this day in the work of directors like Ti West and that is an understanding that what is implied and hinted at is much scarier than what we actually see on screen. Wise manage to create a truly frightening experience by showing us nothing and while this concept is obvious now in 1963 it was unheard of. Wise understood that uncertainty is infinitely scarier than certainty the fact that we and the characters are never sure if the house is haunted or not is genuinely creepy. This film is subtle and takes it's time to introduce the neurotic and psychological troubled characters involved. This can at times make the film overly slow and to modern eyes clunky but it has a useful part to play in the scares to come. By highlighting the psychologically suspect nature of the characters it makes us doubt them and when the scares do begin we question weather they are real or are the visions and hallucinations of a unhealthy mind. The subtly employed by Wise throughout The Haunting builds to create an uneasy sense of dread and madness forcing us to look into every corner of the screen dreading what may appear. When any actual horror is shown on screen the restraint of the director makes us doubt weather we actually saw anything at all. Every noise becomes a possible terror, a technique echoed in so many modern horror films. In fact films such as Paranormal Activity are entirely based upon this one technique largely developed by Wise in the early 60s
This film is full of techniques and ideas that would go on to be common place in the horror genre and as result are easy to miss when viewing the film through modern eyes. One of the most ground breaking approaches by Wise was to make the house one of the primary characters. Hill House dominates almost every scene of the film with its dark and brooding presence unlike earlier horror films where the setting was a secondary concern upon which the action could be played out. Hill House is not blank palate but an active and important member of the cast that interacts with and dominates the action. The house appears to think and to breath and the fear created by a building would not be matched for years to come. It is hard to watch a film like Session 9 or Amityville Horror and not see direct comparisons between these later settings and Hill House.In the intro to the film Hill house is described as 'an evil house form the beginning- a house that was born bad' Wise makes this statement frighteningly believable. Robert Wise was the protege of the early Horror Legend Val Lewton and his influence is clear throughout the film. The way that Wise moves the camera through Hill House and the angles and shots he uses are genuinely exciting. the camera flows and weaves it's way through the haunted mansion. The camera screams around sharp corners and down stairways almost acting as the viewpoint of the malevolent spirit of the house.
This film is an absolutely classic of suspense and while aspects of the film have undoubtedly gained some rust in the last 48 years it is still a film that should be seen. This film was ground breaking when it was released and if you claim to be a horror fan it is a film that you need to watch.