To follow on from my review of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I thought I’d talk a bit about my inspiration for reading it, the 1963 movie adaptation starring Julie Harris. I first tried to watch the movie a couple of years ago–at night, when I was alone in the house all weekend. Bad move! I didn’t make it through the hand-holding in the dark scene; I had to turn it off in order to have any hope of sleep that night. But when Carl rolled out the new Peril on the Screen category for this year’s Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge, I decided that it was time to make it through this classic horror film, any way I could.
I steeled myself with knowledge (El Santo’s perceptive discussion* of the techniques used to make the film so nerve-wracking) and chose the time and place with care: a sunny afternoon, with Ken at hand in the next room in case the scares got too intense. I made it through the film with only a few retreats into critical distance (“Mmhm, here is a perfect example of what El Santo was talking about. I shall tear my eyes away from the screen to make a note–oh, is the scary part over so soon? Darn, I missed it!”) to get my heart rate back under control.
I won’t recap the storyline here, but will comment that the screenplay does a credible job of adapting the novel, with one major change of character motivation (Mrs. Dr. Montague is transformed into her exact opposite for the movie), a few alterations to the story (e.g., Eleanor’s attachment to Luke is transferred to the renamed Dr. Markway), and, of course, the necessary overall trimming of scenes and details. Like most screenplays drawn from novels, the movie’s story seems a bit thin when compared to the source material, but it gets the major themes across.
Where the movie really triumphs is in imparting a sense of agitation and dread to the viewer. An impressive amount of attention is paid to the composition of shots; watch and see how often there’s some sort of movement in the middle distance–branches outside a window blowing in the wind, curtains rustling, mirror reflections, etc. Anything to draw the eye to the background and make us wonder what’s lurking in those shadows. Scenes are filmed at canted angles, framed so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the gloom over characters’ shoulders or above their heads, forcing us to anticipate something looming up there. Reflective surfaces are used to add movement to areas of the screen where there shouldn’t be any, and to give us an angle of view the people in the scene don’t have–which leads to us unconsciously watching their backs for them. There’s a beautifully arranged shot where three nested mirror reflections leave us watching what’s happening in the room behind the camera–behind our own backs, in effect. I can’t tell you how many times misplaced motion startled me, and I would search the scene until I made sense of it–the reflection of an offscreen character’s legs, for example, or a glimmer of light from an unseen lamp. I had to search it out because I didn’t feel safe until I located the source–these techniques effectively put the audience in the room, at the mercy of Hill House.
Like its source novel, The Haunting is hailed as one of the all-time greats in its field, and in both cases, I think the acclaim is warranted. Both are masterful in the way they draw their audiences into the action and work their way into their subconscious minds.
*I’m delighted to finally have cause to mention El Santo and his wonderful movie review site, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. I’ve lost countless hours reading through his reviews, just for fun, whether or not I’ve seen the movies under discussion. I enjoy El Santo’s style; he gives you just enough of the story to get you hooked, then sends you off to watch the movie if you want to know the rest. He’s also great at putting the movies he reviews into their historical contexts by examining their pedigrees, evaluating the resumes of cast and crew, and assessing the environment they were created in. 1000 Misspent Hours is my first stop when I have a specific question about a movie that falls under his purview; more than likely, El Santo has the answer–or at least some insight into the issue.
This review is for the Peril on the Screen challenge of RIP V.