NOVEMBER 24, 2009
Routinely making appearances on any “all time scariest movies” list is Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which is what prompted me to watch it sometime I think in 1996 or 97 (before the 1999 remake at any rate). And I wasn’t scared. But having no recollection of anything about it other than an attraction to co-star Claire Bloom (which hasn’t changed), I figured I would make it my horror movie for the day after seeing it on TCM’s On Demand lineup. Has my opinion changed?
Nope. I don’t know what power the film has over people (even my wife remarked “that was really scary for an old movie”) but it just doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t tense me up, it doesn’t make me afraid of sounds in my house, nothing. There’s the odd sort of creepy moment (“Who’s hand was I holding?”) but nothing that elevates it over any other well-made horror film. Now, that’s not to say it’s not a good movie - in fact I think it’s quite good. But I look at it more as a character drama than a horror film.
It was then and is still now kind of ballsy to have a heroine in a horror movie be so pathetic, and that’s precisely what Nell is. There are rare moments in the film where she’s not moping or whining, not to mention borderline suicidal (“I sleep on my left because it’s bad for the heart” - what the fuck? Also I sleep on my left, so thanks for the heads up, movie!). In fact, the film is ultimately a tragedy about poor Nell; a woman who had a shit life and ultimately lets her fears get the best of her. All of the events that really cause her undoing have little to do with the haunted house - her family treats her like crap, she falls for a guy only to find out that he is married, and is ultimately thrown out of the place she went to in order to enjoy herself for once. Poor sod.
And the supporting cast is more likeable than average. Bloom’s character is particularly interesting - she seemingly has romantic feelings toward poor Nell, but also spends half the film trying to get a rise out of her (often for her own good, though the paranoid Nell often doesn’t see that). The doctor isn’t the usual sort of crazed asshole who puts everyone at risk in order to further himself, and is actually quite charming and personable. And then there’s the other guy, Luke, who serves no narrative function that I can tell, but has a lot of great random lines (upon seeing a bunch of beautiful statues, he wonders if he should chop them up and sell them as tombstones). And since it’s a haunted house movie, there’s a creepy old caretaker woman who pops in every now and then. I always like them, especially when they don’t turn out to be the villain. And all four primary cast members are still alive, which is unheard of for a horror film more than 40 years old.
It’s also one of those films where people actually talk over one another (you know, like in real life), and one of the very few I can recall that’s a horror film (where dialogue isn’t usually worth noting at all). It certainly re-enforces the idea that Spielberg is obviously a big fan of the film - not only does he often have people talking over each other in his films, but he also produced the remake in 1999, and “produced” Poltergeist, which for my money is the quintessential haunted house film and, like Haunting, favors character development over a bunch of random scares.
Speaking of the remake, I flat out did not like it at all (and this was long before PG-13 remakes were the norm, though then again this film was rated G). All it did was add a whole bunch of effects, most of which were lousy anyway. In fact, the only thing I liked about the movie was a random line of Owen Wilson’s (where he suggests “a good hallway” for Liam Neeson to check out), which is hardly what I would call an effective film. Even though this one didn’t really scare me, I at least enjoyed watching it. Don’t look for a review on that one anytime soon, unless they show it at the Bev (by law I am required to attend any screenings of horror movies there).
As I said, this was on TCM, so we get a Robert Osborne intro/outro, where he rambles on and on about the filmmaker’s other films and provides some background info about its production. He also slams the remake in the outro, which is pretty awesome. I would love to have his job on a dedicated horror channel. “Tonight we bring you John Carpenter’s landmark Halloween. Now, even though it was set in the Midwest, the entire film was shot right here in Los Angeles! And the remake sucked balls.” I would also demand a little staircase to walk down at the beginning of every segment, but take the time to point out that it didn’t go anywhere.
What say you?