Robert Wise, the director of 39 Hollywood films, died on September 14, 2005, just four days after celebrating his 91st birthday. In remembrance of Mr. Wise's contribution to cinema, below is my review of his 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, followed by a 1994 telephone interview I conducted with Mr. Wise concerning this film.
The scariest ghost story ever filmed in black and white began as a 1959 novel by acclaimed author Shirley Jackson. Robert Wise, the film's director, read the novel and optioned it for MGM, and used the skills he honed from his Val Lewton days to create a good old-fashioned ghost story where the unknown is more frightening than what is known.
With a cast headed by Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, and Rosalie Crutchley (gotta love that name!), THE HAUNTING tells the story of Eleanor Lance (Harris), a lonely woman looking for her place in the world after caring for her ailing invalid mother for eleven years.
As a result of Eleanor's past dabbling with the supernatural, she is invited by psychic researcher and haunted house analyst Dr. "Please call me John" Markway (Richard Johnson) to stay at Hill House and make observations. This becomes her ticket out of a stifling existence with her sister, brother-in-law, and niece.
Theo (Claire Bloom), a beautiful and hip lesbian who possesses ESP, is a clairvoyant who joins the "experiment." Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a wisecracking doubter of the supernatural and heir to Hill House, is along for the ride.
Once the main characters make their introductions, they all retire to their respective rooms, which set in motion several creepy set pieces. During the night, loud banging sounds emanate from down the hallway, frightening Theo and Eleanor as they crouch together in Theo's bed like frightened children. A cold sensation blankets Theo during the entire episode, and vanishes once the banging stops. Incredibly, Luke and Dr. Markway report never hearing the sounds which are only audible to the women. On another night, Eleanor hears faint child cries from down the hallway and feels as though someone is crushing her hand – even though no one is. The carvings and shapes she sees on the wall look eerily like human faces.
As the film progresses, Eleanor becomes increasingly withdrawn from reality, and her fate, though sad, is exactly what she wants.
THE HAUNTING broke a lot of ground for motion pictures in the early 1960's: the film begins with a wonderfully creepy montage sequence that explains the back story of Hill House; lesbianism is hinted at throughout the film and this compliments the film's restrained style of implicitness; the film was a breakthrough for its use of the Panavision lens which yielded a much wider image and due to elements inherent in the not-yet-perfected lens it produced some distorted images; the eerie opening shot of Hill House against the night sky was shot using infra-red film.
My one carping with the film lies with Eleanor's character. Her "poor me" waif is a bit over the top and comes dangerously close to being annoying, which is unfortunate since she is the protagonist. But Julie Harris, a five-time Tony-award winning actress, ultimately paints a sympathetic picture of a homely woman.
Seeing as this film was shot in anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio, it should only be viewed this way. Fortunately, the DVD versions of this film more or less retain this ratio. The 1.33:1, or cropped, version deprives the viewer of the film's atmosphere.
England's Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford-Upon-Avon (CHECK THIS) doubles as the film's exterior, while the interior was filmed on MGM's Borehamwood Studios near London.
Humphrey Searle has provided a brilliant score that, sadly, has not seen the light of day as a soundtrack album. It does for this film was Hermann's score did for PSYCHO.
The film was remade in 1998 as THE HAUNTING and was released the following summer. The only reason to sit through that travesty is to watch Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Theo the lesbian!) parade around the monstrous set looking painfully beautiful.
ROBERT WISE – THE PROTEAN DIRECTOR
An interview with one of Hollywood's finest on his landmark thriller THE HAUNTING
by Jonathan Stryker
Robert Wise is one of the best directors this country has ever produced. With a filmography spanning four decades and with nearly 40 feature films to his credit, Mr. Wise has carved a niche for himself as a multifaceted talent whose prolific body of work has resulted in some of the most original and entertaining films ever made.
Some critics have unfairly charged Wise with an inability to create and sustain a personal style. This is an unfair and unconscionable dismissal of his obvious talent. It should come as no surprise that not all directors have their own mark on a film, or a signature that is unquestionably authentic, for the simple fact that not all directors have luxury of being an auteur. A film by Dario Argento might, at best, be mistaken for Mario Bava, but for the most part Argento's visual style is unmistakably his own. The same is true for Martin Scorsese, a director who worked almost exclusively with volatile characters and dangerous environments but in later years has softened up a bit. But as Argento works in horror and Scorsese works in suppressed emotions, which occasionally explode of course, Robert Wise has worked in many different genres and has suited each one of his films with the style that he felt was best for the story. Shooting WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) with the same serious style and mood of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) would not have earned him two Oscars for Best Director. In a way, he's like a contemporary Howard Hawks.
Wise got his start in the late 1930's as a film editor on such films as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) and worked his way up to co-editor of CITIZEN KANE (1941) for Orson Welles. Within a few years he began working for producer Val Lewton, best know for CAT PEOPLE (1942) and the power of suggestive horror. He directed THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) and, later, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Following a string of films as diverse as THE SET-UP (1949) and HELEN OF TROY (1954), Mr. Wise returned to the horror genre to direct THE HAUNTING, unquestionably one of the most frightening films ever made.
This telephone interview took place on Tuesday, February 8, 1994, some three weeks after the devastating January 17th Northridge earthquake that rocked the halo from the City of Angels. Ironically, it was on this very date that the interview was originally scheduled to take place but was, for obvious reasons, postponed due to downed phone lines. Was this prevention from contacting the director of the greatest ghost story made in black and white just a coincidence ... or was it the work of something far more sinister? Mr. Wise is no stranger to the world of the supernatural. His filmography is evidence of that.
We took time out from our busy schedules to talk about his fondness for THE HAUNTING – I had just finished shoveling five inches of snow from the driveway and Mr. Wise just finished experiencing the umpteenth aftershock while overlooking the mudslides from the safe haven of his office.
JS: THE HAUNTING and WEST SIDE STORY are very different in terms of the milieus they are set against and the themes they deal with. Was there a conscious decision on your part to spurn convention and follow up WEST SIDE STORY and TWO FOR THE SEESAW with a supernatural horror film?
RW: Well, I'll tell you what it really was. It was a desire to go back to my beginnings, actually, back to the days of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and the Val Lewton period and so forth. I had read a review of Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE in Time magazine during post production on WEST SIDE STORY and was very intrigued by the premise. In those days, novels were usually swept up and optioned by producers right after they were published, so I went to a Hollywood bookstore and bought a copy of the book. I phoned the book company and found out that it hadn't been optioned. I was sitting in my office at MGM Studios and I was in the middle of a particularly hair-raising scene with goosebumps going up and down my neck and Nelson Gidding, a writer who was working on a story for me at the time, came bursting into the room and sent me jumping almost a foot off the couch I was sitting on! I thought, My God, if that can do that to me, this should make a good horror picture. And that's why I shot the film the way I did, based on Lewton's whole thesis that the fear of the unknown is what is truly frightening, and I felt that this story really fell into that mold.
JS: THE HAUNTING shares some great similarities with THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, in particular a lonesome woman wanting to belong, to be loved, and to feel cherished. Were these ideas in your mind when you read the book?
RW: Not really, I didn't relate it that way, no. I just judged it on its own and really got caught up in it. I've always been rather intrigued by the supernatural, or rather the possibility of the supernatural. I've never had a psychic experience, although I have to believe that there is something out there beyond what we can just see, feel, touch, and smell. So, that's what really made me interested in it.
JS: I understand and share your interest. A teacher of mine said that she once observed her ash tray rise off the table, tilt back and forth, and then lower itself. I can't imagine what that must be like –
RW: (enthused) I can't imagine! I know! You see, I want to believe it, just like I believe in UFO's. I wish I could see a UFO! I wish I could have a psychic experience! I want to see those things! You know, the actress who played the old lady, Mrs. Sannerson, at the beginning of the film, Fay Compton, once told me that she owned a country house and she had to have it exorcized twice! She was a great believer in that sort of thing. As you probably know, I shot the whole thing in England due to financial reasons, but I retained the New England back story from the novel because I thought it was fresher there.
JS: The first seven minutes of the film, beautifully photographed by the film's director of photography Davis Boulton, contain some of the most atmospheric and frightening imagery I've ever seen. It is during these moments that the back story concerning Hugh Crane and the history of Hill House is told. Was this originally planned as the film's opening in the original script?
RW: Yes, I think so, I think right from the beginning we had to set up the background so the audience could understand and fear what might happen to Julie Harris's character. That's something that Nelson (Nelson Gidding, the film's screenwriter) and I agreed upon.
JS: Did you use story boards to aid you during shooting?
RW: Yes, I used story boards. I also had a marvelous production designer, Elliot Scott (DRAGONSLAYER, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?), who just did an outstanding job on the film. He did all the interiors.
JS: The Panavision frame was beautifully utilized in this film, and I noticed the prevalence of mirrors and mirror images in many of the shots. Were you making any conscious statements with these devices or were they included merely as subtext?
RW: No, it was subtext, I wasn't making any statement of any kind.
JS: Julie Harris's voice-over during her drive to Hill House is reminiscent of Janet Leigh's ill-fated drive to the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. Was this device a contextual decision to expedite the narrative or were you paying homage to Hitchcock?
RW: I wasn't paying homage to Hitchcock. I had even forgotten about that part in PSYCHO. So much of the story lakes place in Julie Harris's mind that there's was no way of getting into her mind and understanding what she was going through without allowing the audience to hear her inner voice.
JS: The performances of the four leads (Julie Harris as Eleanor, Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway, Claire Bloom as Theo, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke) are wonderful. Was the film shot in continuity?
RW: No, it wasn't. We didn't even have any rehearsal time, although we might have had a read-through of the script, but that's about all.
JS: How did you prepare the performers for the film?
RW: Well, when you go into any film, particularly when you do the casting, you have to have a thorough understanding of each other and how you see the character in relation to the other characters in the story. You have to have a good, thorough discussion so that you don't find that there are opposing views of how the characters are going to be perceived.
JS: How did you come to cast the film the way that you did?
RW: Well, we had a fairly limited budget and I'd always loved Julie Harris as an actress. I thought she was marvelous and had just the right quality to play this part. So, I went back to New York to meet her and she read the script and we talked about it and she agreed to do it. Claire Bloom was living in England at the time and since I was shooting the film there I wanted someone who I didn't have to fly in from the States, and Richard Johnson fell into the cast for that same reason. I needed a leading man who was living and working in London. Also, as part of the financing, we had an Eady Plan which required that x number of performers in the cast be British. But, that was 30 years ago and I don't think that plan exists any longer. Russ Tamblyn came in because he was under contract with MGM and I had worked with him on WEST SIDE STORY before that.
JS: How was your working relationship with cinematographer Davis Boulton? Did you work in tandem with him to come up with the compositions?
RW: Well, he's a very interesting story. Davis had been the head of the stills department at the old MGM Borehamwood studios where we shot outside of London, and he had just finished up his first job as cinematographer on a documentary at the time, and he came to me through Elliot Scott because he and Dave were very close friends, and when I started talking to Elliot about the cinematography, he said that Dave was a lover and student of film and that I should really talk to him about shooting the film. So, I took a chance on Davis and, although he was a great still photographer, he didn't really know the camera and how to move it through a set. But, fortunately, I had a particularly strong camera operator, Alan McCabe, who helped me with the compositions, and Davis concentrated fully on the lighting.
JS: One of the film's greatest assets is Humphrey Searle's brilliantly eerie score, and it amazes me that in the multitude of articles written about THE HAUNTING nowhere is the music mentioned.
RW: I know! I think it's an outstanding score! I think that's the first one he ever did and I don't know if he did any more after the film!
JS: There are elements of the score that sound inspired by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki whose music was used to great effect in THE SHINING. How did you hear about Searle?
RW: I was looking around for a composer and somebody mentioned him to me, somebody said, "Look, I know a man who is an arranger and composer of music and I've heard some of his music. He's kind of an off-beat crazy character and I think that you should listen to some of his music and meet with him." Well, I did and he came on the picture but, I think he did just an outstanding job and I don't know if he ever scored another picture again!
JS: Was a soundtrack album ever issued?
RW: (pensively) Gee, I don't know. I guess I could look through my collection at home and see if I have one, but I honestly don't recall there being one.
JS: The 1993 letterboxed laserdisc release of THE HAUNTING is, visually speaking, a vast improvement over the 1986 pan-and-scan pressing, although the audio leaves something to be desired. The overall sound quality is flat and the film sounds as though it was mixed monaurally. This is a shame considering how much more effective the film would be if the viewer were surrounded with the overwhelmingly loud bangings at the door and all the strange sounds and voices that lurk through Hill House. The aural possibilities have been sadly overlooked. Was the film mixed in mono?
RW: Yes, it was, and I really don't know how much we were into stereo at the time, although I did do 6-track stereo with WEST SIDE STORY and that was 65mm film. But I did all the post-production in England.
JS: The wonderful addition to the laserdisc of THE HAUNTING is the trailer. Did you shoot Richard Johnson's on¬screen introduction which appears in the trailer?
RW: (chuckles) Gee, I can't remember, it's been over 30 years! Usually I have nothing to do with trailers. Trailers, at least here, are made by a company that works for your editor, but that's usually the extent of it.
JS: I'd like to talk momentarily about the novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, upon which the film is based. Why was the title truncated to THE HAUNTING, and why were some of the characters' names changed? For example, Dr. Montague becomes Dr, Markway, and Eleanor Vance becomes Eleanor Lance.
RW: Well, Nelson and I flew back to the States to meet with Shirley Jackson to discuss some aspects of the plot and we asked her if there were any other titles she had in mind for the story, the reason being that THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE was a bit long and sounded too familiar. She said that the only other title she had had in mind was THE HAUNTING, so she gave it to us. As for the characters, I really can't say why we altered the names. It might have been something as simple as "Montague" being too much of a mouthful to say.
JS: There's a major alteration in the plot. In the novel, Eleanor is attracted to the playboyish Luke, but in the film she is attracted to the pensive Dr. Markway. Was this change made to create more tension between Eleanor and Theo?
RW: Yes, I think so, and also it seemed somehow, with the cast we had, more appropriate that she be drawn to Markway than to the kid (Luke).
JS: Markway is certainly more debonair.
RW: Yes, and he was older and more masculine and more intelligent. Luke is more of a lightweight, a nice kid. But, he's still a kid.
JS: How did you manage to get the lesbian subtext past the censors?
RW: (laughs) Well, that's interesting because I think the only time in the film where we hit that point a little too hard is in a sequence that was cut. The first time we see Theo is when she's packing to leave. She yells out the window to her girlfriend below and she yells something back, I forget what, but Theo becomes angry and writes "I hate you" in lipstick on the mirror and storms out. I thought that was just a little too strong so I cut it. Even still, the whole lesbian undertone came through strong enough anyway in the scenes particularly with Julie Harris, so in that sense there was no reason to hit it on the head like that.
JS: Did you feel particularly strongly about this subject given that few films of that era touched on such topics?
RW: No, we didn't feel very strongly, we thought it was an added value and added dimension to it. We felt that if people picked up on it, fine, and if they didn't, that was fine too. That was not the main line of the story, of course, but we were very pleased with the way that the audience picked up on it.
JS: This subtext is fairly covert and works well that way because it's in line with the rest of the film. There are no graphic murders, just a slow, eerie buildup to the frightening finale. Similarly, Theo's sexual preference is only alluded to until Eleanor angrily reprimands her for it and it's blown out in the open.
JS: Getting back to the novel, the character of Luke is not as boorish or as comical as Russ Tamblyn plays him in the film. Was his disposition altered for comic relief to give Russ Tamblyn more to do because he had played that sort of character before?
RW: Yes, I think partially that and partially because Nelson and I felt that it's always marvelous when you get very tense moments you follow them up with a bit of laughter. I think that helped a lot. Nelson has a great sense of humor, he's a great comic with a great wit. So, it felt right for us to give Russ that kind of tone and wit.
JS: Shirley Jackson died approximately two years after the film was released. Did she ever impart her feelings to you concerning the final product?
RW: No, she never did. Never did. I don't know whether or not she liked it or was disappointed in it. Very often you have to change original material substantially to make it work on the screen. I remember that I told her about a screening of it that was held in Albany, NY which is not far from where she lived, but I don't know if she ever saw it. She never communicated her feelings to me about the film and I never had anything to do with her after it was made.
JS: Do you have any new projects in the works?
RW: Oh, I have one that I've been working on but I'm very reluctant to talk about it because I've been in very difficult negotiations for it to become a reality. If it does get the go-ahead, I'll be making the film in Poland at the end of the year.
JS: Well, I certainly wish you the best of luck with that. It would be wonderful to see you direct again.
RW: I would like to.
JS: Thank you for taking the time to discuss THE HAUNTING.
RW: Okay. Happy to do it. It's one of my own particular favorite films, you know. I think it's one of my best directorial jobs.
JS: It absolutely is!