I had seen this several times, so I was uninclined to watch it again, but after recently re-watching the godawful, utterly unredeemable 1999 remake, I knew I had to put it up here so we can review side by side. This is one of the best haunted house movies of all time, gaining distinction by relying on very basic effects--sounds, lighting, editing--and combining that with a focus on character dynamics. Contrast this to the remake, which threw out anything resembling subtlety in favor of CGI, and excellently recast all of these characters, only to throw out all the character content in favor of chases and "Boo!" scare moments.
This is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, perhaps best known for her short story "The Lottery," and directed by Robert Wise, who had cut his teeth on Val Lewton films and went on to make West Side Story and The Sound of Music, among others. There was another novel and film based on this story, The Haunting of Hell House, written by Richard Matheson and also taking a dim view of subtlety.
We open with a silhouette of the house in question, looming before an eerie cloudy sky. We then have a voice-over that gives the history of the house: This guy Hugh Crane had a wife who died upon first seeing the house, when the horses of her carriage suddenly reared up. He had a second wife, who fell down the stairs under mysterious circumstances. They had a daughter, who grew up and grew old in her bed, and died alone when he caretaker was out canoodling with some guy. She inherited the house, until she hanged herself, and since then, the house has sat empty. We now join the debonair Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway, who intends to perform a study on the paranormal in the house. He gets permission from the current owner, so long as Luke, who stands to inherit the house, can be part of his study.
We now join Julie Harris as Eleanor Lance, known as Nell. She has spent her entire life taking care of her sick mother, who is now dead. She is asking her sister to take their shared car to participate in the study, and her sister is being quite an imperious little snit about it. It's obvious from the start that Harris is quite sheltered and socially unstable. She sneaks out in the morning and takes the car without permission, and we now start the voice-over that tells us her thoughts, which will continue throughout the film. She is proud to be finally going out, finally having her own adventure, and dreaming of having a house of her own. When she sees Hill House she has the impulse to run away, but reminds herself "I AM running away." Her only choice would be to return to her sister, and back to a life of servitude and captivity.
She is shown around the house by Mrs. Dudley, severe caretaker who is obviously a descendant of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Dudley warns her that she gets out of there after dark, and that no one in town will live closer than a few miles away, so there'll be no one to hear her "in the night. In the dark." She then gives Nell a creepy smile before disappearing. We soon meet Theodora, Theo for short, played by Claire Bloom. She's glamorous and fashion-forward, plus a touch psychic, and she takes Nell under her wing, a place that will soon be revealed to be filled with thorns. They enter into this potent character dynamic in which she protects Nell while subtly tearing her down, and Nell craves her attention, while soon becoming smothered and hurt by it. Despite the excellent recasting, all of this is dropped from the remake.
The two women walk around the house and grow a bit freaked, before being joined by Dr. Markway and Luke. It is revealed in passing that Nell had a shower of stones fall on her house in the past, evidence that she is a magnet for psychic activity. Markway is constantly telling Nell to "Call him John," and acts in paternal ways one could take as flirtatious. They all go to bed, and we go into this movie's first big scare sequence! Nell wakes to the sound of a pounding on the wall. She goes into Theo's room, and they huddle in terror against the overwhelming sound. Soon it grows cold, then the pounding is right outside their room! You don't notice in the moment, but there are a ton of edits and severe handheld camera angles in this sequence, doing nothing but showing you the door and the women huddling, but it works! It culminates in the slightest turning of the doorknob, freakishly unsettling the first time you see it. When it ends, the film has won you over because you have a moment of "Wow! That was really scary, yet it was nothing but some sounds and a slight doorknob twist." Compare this to the remake, where we literally see the doors being violently pressed inward, the cold made literal with CGI breath, and the doorknob violently twisted.
Spooky events continue, none as effective as the initial banging, but as I said, by now you're ready to play along. The movie also continues developing the character dynamic, with Nell imagining that Markway has a special place in his heart for her, and Theo starting to turn a bit sharp and cutting in her suggestions that Nell just needs to be the center of attention. Everyone starts to think that Nell is just crazy, and grow patronizing in a way that only enflames her further, and makes her more hysterical. Then Mrs. Markway shows up, and Nell's unspoken hopes of a romance with Markway are damaged, Theo becomes like a mocking older sister, and Nell is approaching near-total breakdown, while also excited, telling herself "something at last is happening to you."
The movie manages a brilliant balancing act by maintaining, all the way to the end, the ambiguity of whether there are actually ghosts or not, or whether Nell is just crazy. After watching it a few times now, I'm afraid you have to admit that really, it's not the greatest. None of the scares are as effective as that first, with the banging, and it grows a bit tedious by the end. Some of the scenes get repetitive and don't always seem fully justified. And, as expected, it just can never be as scary as it was the first time. Sorry, but if you watch it a few times, it's scariness sadly grows a little less impressive each time.
Which is not to say it isn't impressive at all, however. Like at the end of the banging sequence, at the end of this movie, you have a moment where you realized that for as scary and effective as it was, it was just pure writing, acting and filmmaking skill that held you in its grip, and you have to admire that. Watching it again, I was aware of the numerous lighting, camera and especially editing tricks that were making all of this happen. The movie very carefully switches between handheld and steady shots, there are intriguing camera angles up the wazoo, using the shapes and shadows of the house to divide up the screen and give character information, and the editing is much more intense and frequent than you notice when wrapped up in the story. For one example, look at the frame here. This is from the second half, when Theo thinks Nell is crazy and is growing ever-more dismissive, and Nell is getting more frantic and defensive. Look how Nell is diminished in size and boxed in by those two bedposts, while Theo is large and looming, with her back to Nell. This is how the movie uses the filmmaking throughout to comment on and tell the story, and this whole movie a crackerjack example of using pure filmmaking technique in service of a story.
So, while no scary movie can stay scary forever, this one grows a bit more impressive upon repeated watchings, as its machinery starts to show, revealing exactly what a well-made machine it is. Come for the first-rate scares, stay for the filmmaking skill, but be sure to see this at least once.