I spent almost my entire weekend watching classic horror at the Landmark Loews in Jersey City. Lucky! On Friday night they featured F. W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU and last night great crowds assembled for a fantastic double bill, James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) followed by Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING (1963).
Since I’ve seen FRANKENSTEIN on a big screen before, in 2012 when TCM presented special screenings of the film on a double bill with BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN I won’t go into any detail on the film here. You all know what it’s about anyway. As for last night’s screening – the print was pretty bad. In fact since I even noticed it would probably be in the terrible category for anyone with a keener eye. That said, the crowd was terrific with lots of kids in attendance whose excitement could be felt throughout the 85-year-old Loews. There was a bit of inappropriate laughing during serious scenes, but as I’d mentioned in my 2012 commentary Mel Brooks and his YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) have ensured that would happen with either this film or its BRIDE sequel forever more.
As for THE HAUNTING… Well, I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that I scare easily and knowing this particular movie tends toward high tension, by the time it started I was revved. And the voiceover that starts the movie didn’t help a bit, “Scandal! Murder! Insanity! Suicide! Hill House has everything!”
By this second feature the kids that were at the Loews for FRANKENSTEIN had left and in their place was a crowd of classic horror fans that nearly filled the theater. There was no laughing during this movie, but based on the comments heard as we left the theater everyone enjoyed it. THE HAUNTING was introduced by Lee Pfeiffer of Cinema Retro Magazine. Pfeiffer shared personal recollection of when he first saw the film as a child when it opened at the Loews Jersey, his neighborhood theater and discussed details of the film’s locations in England.
Perhaps what’s most astounding about THE HAUNTING is how effective a “scary movie” it is despite the fact that there is no violence in it – or certainly no violence by today’s standards. There is also no blood and no CGI. In fact there are barely any special effects in the movie at all. One of the scariest scenes in the movie where you see what has come to be known as “the breathing door” was done by two burly guys pushing up against it. Producer/director Robert Wise created the tension that builds throughout the film with photography, lighting, music, sound effects and terrific acting by a stellar cast of classically trained actors who weren’t even particularly popular at the time. The main players are Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn.
The story goes that Robert Wise got the idea to do THE HAUNTING while in pre-production on WEST SIDE STORY (1961). The director recounted that he was reading a particularly chilling part of Shirley Jackson’s book, “The Haunting of Hill House” on which THE HAUNTING is based when screenwriter Nelson Gidding burst through the door to ask him a question. “I Literally jumped three feet off the floor and thought, ‘if it can do that to me sitting and reading, it ought to be something I want to make a picture out of.” And he did – making the now iconic movie between WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).
The story of THE HAUNTING is simple – on the surface – but it leaves so much to interpretation by suggestion that it lingers from scene to scene. While you may still be contemplating that last “happening” you’re onto the next one. Pfeiffer referred to this film as “a thinking person’s horror movie” and he was right.
The story – Anthropologist, Dr. Markway (Johnson) is interested in studying the supernatural and assembles a group of key people to spend time in Hill House to document supernatural activity. Hill House is an old New England mansion where horrible happenings are said to have occurred. Markway invites Eleanor Lance (Harris) a young woman whose mother has just died and whose sanity is increasingly in question as the days pass. Then there’s Theodora who’s invited because she has ESP. As Lee Pfeiffer mentioned after the screening, THE HAUNTING is notable for many things among them the fact that the Theodora character is a lesbian, a groundbreaking depiction of such a character in films of the early 1960s. The fact is treated with subtlety in the movie, but adds an interesting dynamic to the mix. Finally we have Luke Sanderson (Tamblyn), the young skeptic who volunteers to stay at Hill House for the experiments because he’s slated to inherit the mansion.
As time passes everyone learns that the tales told about Hill House were likely true as supernatural forces play havoc at every turn. And the forces in THE HAUNTING are palpable.
THE HAUNTING achieved only moderate success at the box office in 1963, but it has grown in stature and following as a cult favorite through the years. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg list it among the scariest movies of all time. Who am I to argue? No doubt this movie is memorable. I’m happy I saw it in a theater with an enthusiastic audience, but I’m not likely to watch it again anytime soon.
Thanks to the Landmark Loews Jersey for a fantastic weekend of classic horror! You may want to visit next Saturday, November 1st when the theater dedicates their yearly Halloween party to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING with a screening of the film followed by a 1920s themed party.
As for me – I’m ready for some MGM musicals!
From last night at the Loews Jersey…