Monday, December 30, 2013

The Haunting: Chainsawnukah Epilogue

The Haunting (1963)
Dir. Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding
Starring Julie Harris, Clare Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

For the very last film of this Chainsawnukah season, I went with a classic: Robert Wise’s 1963 Black-and-white* masterpiece. It seems a fitting end to this season, since I began by discussing, in my exceedingly long and digressive take on THE AMERICAN SCREAM, what I perceive to be the great personal and psychological good that my love of horror has done me. THE HAUNTING is about psychology too, but it’s certainly a different take on the subject than I had, if not an out-and-out repudiation of my position. It’s about a haunted house, sure, but much more than that it’s about our relationship with our fears, and what happens when we face them and they overwhelm us before we can overcome them.

But hey, what do these characters have to be fearful of? Just because they’re staying in Hill House, the famed site of deadly accidents, suicides, and madness over the course of three generations, doesn’t mean there’s something evil going on here, right? If so, it wouldn’t make sense that a scientist named Dr. Markaway (Richard Johnson) would be conducting paranormal research of questionable scientific value while staying on-premise with a caustic lesbian psychic (Clare Bloom), a snarky rich kid (Russ Tamblyn, Dr. Jacoby from TWIN PEAKS!), and a repressed, unstable assistant named Eleanore (Julie Harris). I mean, that would just be silly.

Yeah, she looks like a good choice for this sort of high-stress work environment.
Fundamentally, the premise is almost identical to any number of similar films, for example BURNT OFFERINGS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, or THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (this one was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, for what it’s worth**.) There’s only so many different setups you can use to get a group of people into a haunted house in order to be menaced by its supernatural denizens, so I guess that’s not too surprising. The difference is in the kind of horror that Wise is trying to tease of of the concept: while other films (including the woeful 1999 remake) are interested in milking as many supernatural shenanigans and effects out of the concept as possible, Wise has his eye on something far more mysterious and troubling: the human brain.

See, maybe there are ghosts in Hill House (not Hell House) and maybe there aren’t. Certainly, some things seem mighty suspicious, for example the wooden door that bulges outwards like it was made of rubber. But Wise is from the Val Lewton school of horror (in fact, his first film CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE was made for Lewton) and he’s strongly invested in suggesting --not broadcasting-- the horror. Seeing a ghost is scary, but not nearly as scary as fearing there’s a ghost there that we can’t see. So the movie becomes a series of artful implications, a distorted glass through which we can see something is amiss, but can’t quite pin it down. And what’s more frightening than that? If you can identify your fear, you can take steps to protect yourself. But how can you fight what you don’t understand?***

The Scooby gang.

It’s not really ghosts or ghouls that are at the top of the worry list for our mousy protagonist Eleanore, however. She’s got a whole mess of personal issues to deal with, starting with the death of her invalid mother who she’s spent her whole life cloistered up in a small apartment caring for and maybe --just maybe-- resenting a little. She’s been living with her bitchy sister (Diane Clare, who I liked so much in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, what are the odds she’d be in this too?!) and seems completely adrift, unsure what to do with her life or even really how to live her own life, period. She’s possessed of a powerfully conflicted character, desperate to reclaim her own life but terrified and paralyzed by the vastness of the world which has suddenly opened up to her. She’s both claustrophobic and agorophobic.**** Dr. Markaway seems to think that her experiences with her mother will in some way help trigger the paranormal denizens of Hill House, but for her part she’s much more interested in Dr. Markaway than she is in any ghost. She’s likely never had another adult pay this sort of attention to her (even though Markaway is married and his interests appear to be purely professional) and consequently its emotional impact on her is enormous even though to him their interactions are quite mundane.

All this fear and hope and desire and confusion put Eleanore in a dangerous mental place. And Hill House is not the best place to be in that frame of mind, especially not when it’s being filmed by Robert Wise. The interiors are all oddly designed, no right angles anywhere, baroque decorations cluttering your view in every direction. It feels claustrophobic, chaotic, menacing. Wise almost never resorts to visually depicting unexplainable phenomena, but he doesn’t need to. His command of light, shadow, and texture make certain that whatever he’s showing, we’re afraid of what’s behind it. In one of the movie’s best sequences, he cuts back and forth between Eleanore’s face and a closeup of flowered wallpaper. And it’s terrifying.

A white-knuckle high-octane thrill ride!

The whole place is designed to cause anxiety and paranoia, but Eleanore seems particularly susceptible. And we know this because, in an unusual move for film, we can actually hear her inner monologue. Every painful question she asks, every time she tries to reassure herself, we hear her quavering voice echoing in her own head. It’s an odd device, but I think it ultimately works because we can relate to it. After all, we all have our own little inner monologue, don’t we? Hearing Eleanore makes her all the more vulnerable; she can’t even fool us with the thin veneer of bravado she tries to put up. We’re inside her head, aware of all her deepest fears, aware of all the thoughts and wild terrors that torment her every minute of  the day. And as things get more and more frightening, we can see the dangerous turn her mind is taking.

This is obviously a great movie, but you know that already. So what I’d really like to talk about is her fear, and the way it takes her already fragile mental state and warps it, gradually turns it in on itself until she disappears into it. When I started this season, I talked about how being afraid and then being forced to face my fears as a youngster started me down the long and happy road to being a horror fan. I talked about how living with the fears and embracing them and making them a part of myself helped make me a smarter, healthier, and -- I believe -- better person.

But that’s not what happens to poor Eleanore. The fear doesn’t reveal itself as easily to her; she can’t or won’t come to terms with her anxieties and the reasons behind them. They stay, like the house itself, mysterious and undefined, for all the world like ghosts in her head. She feels constantly under assault from invisible, unknowable forces, deathly afraid of losing the paltry autonomy that has just recently entered her life. And each fear seems to trigger a flood of other apprehensions until she can barely stay afloat in the roiling, ever-rising tide of generalized terror.

Trust me, there's an upside.

I mention all this, because one of my main fears these days has to do with fear itself. I look out into the world everyday and I see an awful lot of scared people. Just like Eleanore, their fears are vague and undefined, but all consuming. They’re struggling, just like she is, to try to stay afloat in a world which sometimes seems to be sinking very fast; just like her, they’re wildly unprepared to be dropped into a world without support, without direction, but with just enough nagging, desperate hope to try and fight for. They too seem to hear ghostly voices; invisible threats always menacing from just beneath the surface.

And certainly, the world is not without it’s real dangers, just as Hill House exhibits plenty of classic horror movie tells that it is indeed haunted. There will always be things to fear, threatening things which we don’t understand and can’t control. But no ghost lays a hand on Eleanore. It’s her fear of them that slowly pushes her to hysterical, paranoid reactions, and in the end it’s her own actions that lead to her undoing. And in truth, that’s what I see when I look out across America’s cultural landscape. Lots of scared people, people who feel vulnerable and beset by powerful malevolent forces beyond their control. People whipped into a frenzied panic by the whispering cultural voices always echoing from somewhere far away on the other side of the TV screen, like malicious spirits haunting society at large. The more frightened they get, the more they react out of anger and paranoia, and the less they think (or worse, the more warped and self-confirming their thinking becomes). And in turn, we get a society which lurches from one mostly-imagined panic to another, lashing out violently and randomly sometimes in a mad, headless effort to flee from the spectres and phantoms that lurk behind that mundane wallpaper.

The fact is, unless you live in Syria or somewhere, you’re living in the safest world anyone has ever inhabited -- ever. So why are we so scared? Like Eleanore, we feel out of control. The world has gotten so much bigger and more complex, and our ability to feel in control of it hasn’t caught up with the ever-expanding world of possibility. Even as we’ve become ever more able to shape our lives and environment as we see fit, our understanding and awareness of the vastness of the world has grown so much faster. Like THE HAUNTING, we’re at the precipice of a new world, thunderously shocking in its vastness and mysteriousness. The potential gains to be had in such a world are staggering, and the potential for loss even more so. And to add to that, though we’re wealthy beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams, our splintered economy has pushed so many people closer to the edge than ever before, precariously balanced on the precipice of a plunge that would land them on the forgotten side of a culture roaring by them. And then, the ghosts: terrorism, banking debacles, self-serving politicians, suspicious strangers all around. Theft, infidelity, pedophiles, holocaust deniers, cheats, liars, thieves, violent brutality nuclear war global dimming religious zealotry animal cruelty addiction heart disease death depression sexual dysfunction the water bill the West Bank and more TRANSFORMERS films. Always whispering from behind that wallpaper at us, interrupting our frantic inner monologue, brushing against our ears in the dark. Egged on by those bodiless spirits behind the computer screen or the twitter handle or the newscaster’s haircut. Real fears, genuine fears, but implacable, hidden, lying in wait. Filling the dark places of our minds with the shadows of what they could be, while craftily hiding their real shape in the chaos of the screeching hurricane of general anxieties. Just like the ghosts of Hill House, these are the shadows of the past, jealously trying to take the present for themselves, too.

Bill O'Reilly said what!?

Well, I love horror, and I love a movie that can scare me. Hell, I watched 55 of them in October, finding at least something entertaining in every one. But you know, I’m not scared much anymore. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge that the world is full of genuine things which could hurt me or the people I love. Rather, as someone who used to spend much of my time in the company of fear, I know the terrible burden it forces you to carry. Bad things can and will happen; I’ll do my best within reason and within the boundaries of the rich life I hope to live to protect myself and the people I love, and beyond that I’ll simply have to deal with anything that comes up as it happens. But I refuse to be burdened by the great tyranny of the unknowable. I’m as helpless against the dangers of the world as anyone, and a good deal more vulnerable than some. But I have control over my own mind, and I can decide who I want dominating the conversation in there. We’re all afraid, all vulnerable; it’s the human condition. And we all sometimes feel like Eleanore does, that we’re at the center of some kind of malicious and intangible conspiracy to push us until we crack. The trick is to be solid enough within yourself to withstand the furies of the world, both real and imagined, and come out whole.

Eleanore can’t do that, but I hope that I can. And I think the reason I might has a lot to do with why I ended up writing about horror movies to begin with: the more you understand about yourself and the world, the less terrifying it becomes. A world full of vague shadows is endlessly terrifying because you’re powerless against them. But a world full of real but concrete dangers is one which you can practically and productively  take reasonable precautions for, and then get back to the business of living in. And it’s not enough to merely learn about the world; you’ve also got to learn about those ultimate arbiters of this world: your own senses, your own soul, your own mind. That’s where the horror movies come in. Horror isn’t, in my view, about wallowing in misery or macabre subjects; it’s about exploring what they mean to us, how we relate to them, how they manage to sometimes get the best of us. People who spend their lives avoiding these things simply don’t have any experience dealing with their own reaction to the darker side of life; it’s liable to push them in bizarre and extreme ways, as we see with Eleanore, or Fox News. But those of us who have made it part of their life’s pleasures to explore the world of the phantasmic nocturne... well, we know where we stand with it. And we know that while it may always be there, whispering from behind those menacing angles and banal wallpaper… that’s all it can do. We’re all permanent residents of Hill House, but what we make of it says more about us than it does about the dead.

That’s it, that’s all I got. Happy Chainsawnukah/ New Years (sorry, next year I swear I’ll get some of these reviews under 10,000 words and hopefully wrap up a little sooner), and may Chainsawnta Claus bless us (with more HELLRAISER sequels), everyone!

*In fact, Wise’s contract with MGM specifically limited the film to being made in black and white; when Ted Turner tried to colorize it later for TCM, Wise successfully prevented him from doing so by pointing to the original contract.

** Leaving “The Hill with a House that was Haunted” as the only remaining variation on the name

*** Unless you’re a evolution denier, then you fight using lawyers.

****By the way, poor actress Julie Harris was going through severe depression during the movie's filming, and I bet having to spend a lot of time in this bizarre, unnerving house set didn't help. I suspect a lot of the crushing vulnerability she projects here derives from that.

Talk about playing all the angles.


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, from Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. Not be to confused with THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, or THE HAUNTING OF HOBBIT HOUSE (coming soon from director Peter Jackson in eyeball-punishing 48 frames for 30 or so hours).
  • SEQUEL: No, but ripped off by basically everyone ever.
  • REMAKE: In 1999 director Jan de Bont thought this would work better with a bunch of cheesy 90's CGI and Owen Wilson. History will vindicate him.
  • BOOBIES: Nope, you get some strongly implied lesbianism, though.
  • CURSES: It's suggested the house itself is cursed, but they're never explicit about it.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Well-remembered classic.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: No. But remember, this is movie 55, people.
Like THE SHINING, this one should get a hypothetical 6th hook for being an unambiguous classic. But I can't find a happier picture of Pinhead, so just try to imagine it.
Women talk to each other quite a bit here, about a variety of topics.

1 comment:

  1. but maybe you could find a really happy picture of doug bradley for the 6th hook? (dan not shenan)