Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome

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The revelation in watching THE HAUNTING for me this time was that while Robert Wise’s filmmaking still holds up, and there’s a lot to say about that, the things that popped out most in the screenplay were the tin-eared blunders. Nelson Gidding (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) has done a good job compressing the incidents and realigning the characters from Shirley Jackson’s uncanny classic The Haunting of Hill House (wherein, for instance, Eleanor is attracted not to the investigating doctor but to the spoiled heir), on a structural level, but he really doesn’t have anything like the prose style or ear for dialogue he needs. Here’s Jackson’s opening –

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Feel the goosebumps? Gidding has given the job of transferring Jackson’s intro and history lesson into the voice of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), which means jettisoning some of the flourishes and sometimes injecting an unwelcome note of jocularity which is one of Markway’s least appealing traits ~

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

That first sentence, I think, does little but deaden the overall effect, whereas Jackson’s abrupt change of direction between sentence 1 and 2 is deliciously jolting. After the credits (simple sans-serif font, with a big spooky production number for the main title — why?) Then the narration continues, with Wise providing spectacular visual accompaniment — absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Davis Boulton, whose career seems otherwise quaintly undistinguished: I like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, but IT! and SONG OF NORWAY?

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Bad stuff in the VO: there’s no equivalent in Jackson’s book for the awful phrase “big tree,” which sounds comically awkward even with Richard Johnson’s manly tones behind it, although Jackson is responsible for the equally uncomfortable “ah, lifeless, I believe is the phrase they use,” and she also gave us the name of the builder of Hill House — Hugh Crain. Sounds like Ukraine, not good. Gidding changed many of the character names, aimlessly (Vance becomes Lance, Montague becomes Markway) but saw fit to leave that one. And we learned he “died in a drowning accident,” a horrendously clunky phrase.

Great stuff in the visuals: the slow lap dissolve transformation from childhood to senescence:

vlcsnap-790610vlcsnap-790720vlcsnap-790787Think about this too much, and it’s the scariest thing in the film.

And all those ANGLES. Wise asked Panavision if they had a good wide-angle lens. They said they were working on one, but had rejected all their prototypes so far because they caused too much distortion. “Perfect!” said Wise, “That’s just what I want.” “No no no,” advised Panavision, “We really think these are a bit more distorted than you’d like.” “I assure you that’s impossible,” stressed Wise. Panavision were insistent. They were really embarrassed by these warped bottle-bottom things. In the end, Wise had to sign lots of documents promising he wouldn’t sue Panavision for sending him funhouse lenses.

vlcsnap-797819The convex mirror is one of Wise’s little jokes about his unconventional lens kit.

Emerging from this sensational, moody tape-slide presentation opening, we get Fay Compton (Emilia in Welles’ OTHELLO), one of my favourite old ladies, although she does say “Ho ho ho!” once too often in this scene. And here we meet Richard Johnson, a bluff, plummy actor who can do solemn without getting sepulchral. An actor friend of Fiona’s attests that Mr Johnson, who is still extant, greets old acquaintances with a loud cry of “Who’re you fucking?” It’s a lovely image.

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Johnson, as anthropologist Markway, is off on a ghost-hunting jaunt, and is forced to take Compton’s delinquent young nephew along — Russ Tamblyn, imported by Wise from WEST SIDE STORY. Tamblyn’s legendary physical prowess will come in handy on a couple of occasions: a very intelligent actor who thinks with his body.

Now comes the plunge into despair as we meet Eleanor (Julie Harris), the deeply unhappy protagonist who is the key element in this film that could not exist without Shirley Jackson’s imagination. In researching haunted houses, Jackson tells us that she discovered a book by some parapsychologists investigating an old house, and the accounts of spookiness they recorded were unmistakably, to her modern mind, the products of their own neuroses. Eleanor is Jackson’s tool for unleashing the horrors of Hill House — if we take this little behind-the-scenes tale at face value we have to accept that there are no ghosts, only the demons that haunt Eleanor, manifesting through her latent telekinesis.

Eleanor’s horrible home life is sketched in economically, but still feels unbelievably oppressive, which may be a result of all that damn internal monologuing she does. Not my favourite movie device, but it works well here, draping a curtain of gloom over the events and reminding us of the story’s interior nature.

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This movie always seems to get away with being shot in Britain, dragged up as America, rather lightly. The street scenes are less than fully convincing, and then the housekeepers, Valentine Dyall with his ludicrous attempt at a New England accent by way of Kentucky, and Rosalie Crutchley who’s just English. Hill House itself is English, and now a hotel, real name Ettrington Park (anybody stayed there?).

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Hill House — the exteriors are mainly shot on infra-red stock, so the sky is black and clouds are white, giving the whole image a strange feeling. As Jackson puts it ~

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Wise’s chief tool to create an equivalent in images to Jackson’s anthropomorphism is his editing, and to facilitate the work of invocation he has furnished himself with many many angles. Wise was an editor (CAT PEOPLE and CITIZEN KANE of course, but also THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, our first Film Club film) before he was a director, and the trait that lifts his best work out of the journeyman class, it seems to me, is his mastery of visual rhythm. The gunshot at the end of WEST SIDE STORY is a great example. Here, although Eleanor’s VO cues a lot of the eerie sensations, it’s the multiple shots of watching windows and statuary that confirms to us her impression that the house is alive and maleficent.

Fiona points out that as soon as Eleanor enters, we see her reflected in the floorboards (a beautiful shot) and in a decaying mirror, “as if she’s already being absorbed into the house.”

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Theo! The last of our adventurers. Claire Bloom adds to the insistent Englishness of the thing, but her character is so enticingly exotic that her country of origin counts for naught. A mindreader AND a lesbian, as she keeps frantically signalling to us, Theo is not so much a telepath as an empath, like Persis Khambatta in Wise’s later plunge into turgidity, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. And she uses her powers for evil: what IS it with Theo? She’s constantly noising up poor Eleanor, then running after her to make friends. Needy bitch. It’s as if Gidding has decided that lesbians are inherently alien and nothing they do makes sense, so he can just have her blow hot and cold at random and call it characterisation. Bloom doesn’t seem to have any particular interpretation in mind, she just plays it dead casual and chic in her Mary Quant (pre-mini-skirt) costumes. One can’t help but enjoy her.

(At the wonderfully obsessive eleanor-lance.com, the theory is put forward that Theo has a crush on Eleanor, and so her bitchy reactions would be triggered any time she sees Eleanor getting too cosy with Markway. I guess I always discounted this because the chic Theo doesn’t have much cause to be enticed by this dowdy spinster type, but I suspect it’s the correct interpretation.)

The remainder of the film, now that we’re in situ, can be divided into set-pieces and pontification, held together by Eleanor’s slow decline into madness. Julie Harris is Hollywood’s idea of a plain jane, and she’s quite affecting. She has that pale mole along from the corner of her mouth that always looks like a teardrop. And she gets that terrifying line about sleeping on her side to wear her heart out quicker. If Gidding invented that then I forgive him everything and prostrate myself at his feet.

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Something at the door! A symphony of sound effects, and the starting-point for Polanski’s great REPULSION. I have a hard job choosing a favourite between the Wise and the Polanski, both of which seem heavily flawed in ways that don’t matter, and deeply great in ways that do.

Again, Wise covers the scene with a zillion angles, trying his damnedest to always pop out of a different door and surprise us, hardly ever repeating a  shot. His crew must have thought him crazy. If he was shooting this for Lewton he’d have to do it in about eight set-ups. Compared with anything in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE or THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING has big-movie gigantism alright, but the guiding intelligence is so shrewd that the lumber of epic bloat is dispelled: it’s a graceful colossus.

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“Whose hand was I holding?” Another great set-piece, with astonishing sound and the world’s most sinister wallpaper. What are the great wallpaper movies? Anybody want to try a Top Ten?

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Then Miss Moneypenny turns up. Lois Maxwell was one of these Americans who came to live in England and scooped up tons of work whenever an accent was required. Like William Sylvester in a skirt. Inserting a new character at this point, one whose existence has been established but not revealed to Eleanor, adds new energy, dashes Eleanor’s romantic dreams, and accelerates us into the climax, with Mrs Markway vanishing and Eleanor starting to act very strangely indeed. The balancing act required here is prodigious: if Eleanor goes utterly irrational, no amount of VO will help us stay with her, and if she stays rational, there’s no movie. And if the other characters become too distant and unsympathetic, that will hurt the plausibility, but they must seem a bit distant if we’re to feel Eleanor’s alienation. I think the movie manages this well.

The drama of the swaying spiral staircase is pretty tense, and I wonder if Wise has been looking at THE RED SHOES — those fast tracks of Julie Harris’ feet running, and the spiralling journey up the stairs… plus the idea of a heroine pulled along by forces beyond her control.

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Fiona is very anxious I should talk about THE SOUND. Uncredited electronics wiz Desmond Briscoe seems to be a key name here. A founder of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Briscoe is no doubt responsible for the very odd resonant poundings, and maybe some of those other, less identifiable noises. I seriously dig the weird mumbling prayers, with their mis-stressed phrases, that perfectly catch the sense of hearing something without being able to hear it — a psychological phenomenon that’s very hard to reproduce in a movie soundtrack, where something is either audible or not. Interestingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, an inferior but nonetheless enjoyable spook-house melodrama which is majorly indebted to this one, features a score by Delia Derbyshire, another Radiophonic alumnus (who wove the electronic tonalities of the classic Dr Who theme tune).

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In cinema, which exploits only two of our five (or is it more?) senses, anything which is not visible must be audible — unless it’s implied by what happens when you’re not looking. In Hill House, where doors close unaided, but only when unobserved, the unseen presence is constantly evoked by the restless camera and the shifting of camera angles, which prevents us getting orientated. Apart from big features like staircases, we never have any sense of the shape of a room, and even size seems unreliable. While Alexander Mackendrick built a house for THE LADYKILLERS (scored by yet another Radiophonics man, Tristram Carey) without a single right angle or true vertical, Wise and his designers creates more a sense of vast space, populated by a bewildering variety of animate mirrors, statues, and pictures. Accelerating the pace of cutting when we least expect it, he keeps us on our toes by forcing us to reorient ourselves with each fresh angle. One shot, an ECU on the eye of a cooked fish (a pun on those warped lenses?) always throws me completely.

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The End. The idea of Eleanor joining the spirits in the house seems like a big influence on THE SHINING, while the other idea, that the house was not actually haunted until now, is bleaker. Rephrasing the VO from the beginning and giving it to Eleanor (making this another entry in the series of films, beginning with SUNSET BOULEVARD and continuing through THE SEVENTH CROSS to AMERICAN BEAUTY, to be narrated by the dead) is a lovely idea, although once again the screenplay fumbles the correct sense of things — “and we who walk here, walk alone.” The pluralisation makes nonsense of the aloneness. As Joel McCrea protests in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

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27 Responses to “Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome”

  1. Wonderful and intelligent writing on a great, great film. I was a little lost on what to watch for Hallowe’en until I read this.

  2. Thanks! Definitely worth revisiting. Tonight we watched Jack Clayton’s lovely film of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which has plenty of October atmos to it.

  3. Christopher Says:

    glad you made note of the Wallpaper..THats one of my favorite tid bits in the film, as you can make out a devilish face in the pattern..something alot of us have done staring at wood patterns,or wallpaper or whatnot around the house,images form if you stare long enough..

  4. They’ve helped us see it by darkening the “eyes” I think. But it’s a lovely, subtle job.

  5. For anyone who reads this within the next hour, TCM is about to show THE HAUNTING this morning at 10 am here in the States, Eastern Standard Time.

  6. Excellent read-out.

    In her rave review Pauline Kael compared the film to Borwning’s Dracula — with Claire Bloom as Dwight Frye and Julie Harris as Helen Chandler. The house of course is The Count.

    The way Wise’s camera stares so intently on the bric-a-brac as weh almost hear things suggests the house itself is talking.

    Now to my own experience. This was back in the early 70s’ in New York. I was visitng a friend who was apartment-sitting at a seemingly nondescript place on the lowe east side ion the “Alphabets” (Avenue A or B or something.) It was a fairly ordinary “railroad apartment. We were sitting in the livingf room chattin. All the lights were on. Suddenly from behind us we hear the distinct sound of tramping feet in the hallway. The apartment’s front door opened on this hallway with a kitchen and then a barthroom to one side of it before the larer space of the living room followed. The sound were quite disntinctly in the hallway itself. Not coming from another apartment (as the building itself was dead quite. then suddenly a kidn of “snap” sound was heard in mid air and the rocking chair on the otjher side of the room started moving back and forth quite rapidly before suddenly stopping.

    I asked my friend who sadi “”There he is again. He does this all the time. It’s a routine.”

    And indeed it was. Poltergeists such as this are electrical impulses — echoes of some violent event or toehr that took place in the space in in whcih they resied. Recall Anne Jackson in The Shining telling Danny the’re “like pictures in a book.”

    Precisely.

  7. Glaswegian comics scribe Grant Morrison told me of his own encounter — as he and his flatmates huddled downstairs, they heard smashing and crashing from above, as if every stick of furniture were being smashed to matchwood. When they eventually dared to investigate, they found not a trace of damage.

    Kael’s failure to appreciate The Shining demonstrated one of her many blind spots. She liked old-style Gothic spookiness, and dismissed the Overlook hotel as bland. But I’d be a lot less frightened in Hill House than I would in Kubrick’s mausoleum.

  8. You’ve met Grant Morrison?!

    Christ, if I met Grant Morrison, I think I’d puke. Well done on the self-control.

    Spot on about ‘The Shining’. It’s the very nature of it as this huge blank canvas that life has been scrawled upon in different (and horrible) ways over the years that bothers me – that and the quiet. Oh, the quiet…

  9. Cool….

    I have always had a morbid fear of the dark owing to the frequent powercuts that happened in my neighbourhood as a kid but I have never experienced the paranormal as David has done except for occassional clinking sounds in the house, objects dropping to the floor of their own accord and scaring the hell out of the habitual solitaire that I am. Sometimes I think my house has a life of it’s own that it has become organic after all these years.

    THE HAUNTING is about that as is Hawthorne’s THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES and even Minnelli’s THE COBWEB which seems rigid and permanent and forbidding.

  10. Me and a producer tried to sell Morrison on the idea of developing a TV project one time, but he was too busy. He did speak of his enthusiasm for The Exorcist III, and that “religious kind of horror” that you didn’t see very often.

    Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Stone Tape has a very nice description of the idea of buildings as recording devices storing the events that occur in them.

  11. Christopher Says:

    Claire Bloom as Dwight Fry INDEED!..:o)).I’m still pondering that one…
    well I’ve often thought Ghosts are probably more like some photographic or electrical activity in the air of an occupants frequent habits.hence..the activity never seems to be aware of the person(s) looking on ..in terror..thank God.

  12. Poltergeists usually are related to adolescents, and might be interpreted as telekinetic acting out — like Dr Morbius’s monster from the Id. In The Haunting, the virginal Eleanor is kind of in a state of arrested adolescence…

  13. Richard Johnson is a name etched deep in my memory and dates from my first ever visit to the theatre outwith pantomime season – a school trip to see the RSC’s As You Like It, in which he played Orlando to Peggy Ashcroft’s Rosalind. He was athletic, handsome, youthful, and I was smitten. So I was startled to see him in The Haunting (made only 3/4 years later) looking so middle aged and being, as you say, so ‘bluff and plummy’. Looking him up on IMDB, I learn he was only 36 when it was made.

    I don’t know what conclusion to draw from this. Maybe there isn’t one.

  14. robert keser Says:

    Excellent stuff, David! I haven’t seen THE HAUNTING in years, but this makes me anxious to right that wrong.

    Incidentally, Chabrol’s LANDRU must be counted among the all-time great wallpaper movies, perhaps the greatest.

    Andrew Stone’s charming HI DIDDLE DIDDLE (1943) also features witty and absolutely unique wall covering: opera diva Pola Negri practices TANNHAUSER in her music room papered with images of Wagner and Cosima having a picnic en plein air. When she hits a sour note, the animated Wagner holds his ears in agony, and even their donkey laughs!

  15. *Adds Landru to must-see list.

    I think Johnson has certainly been styled to appear more middle-aged in The Haunting. He’s still quite handsome, but as a married professor they want him to look safe, and he has to contrast with Tamblyn (which is easy enough).

  16. Seems I recall the first time I saw THE HAUNTING I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of the in-your-face sort of horror that comes with the presence of monsters or apparitions associated with the supernatural. It’s as you’ve stated before in re. to THE HANDS OF ORLAC, had you seen it in your youth you wouldn’t have been as receptive to its subtleties. This time I was more attuned to what this film has to offer, and am looking forward to possibly seeing it again in the not-too-distant future. There were two instances early on that brought to mind PSYCHO, the first to do with the flashback of the first wife falling to her death down the stairs (think Martin Balsam), and the second where Eleanor is driving and we are privy to her thoughts (think Janet Leigh). Of course the B&W cinematography heightened the parallels, the remembrance. I was also reminded of a film made a few years prior to this one, directed by another protege of Lewton’s, Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Both of them share night shots of the English countryside unless I’m mistaken, and of course both films were intentionally meant to suggest rather than literalize, although in Tourneur’s case we know that the end product didn’t reflect that intent (although I find the demon as depicted a real treat). The link you provided, eleanor-lance.com, blew my mind. Obsessiive really is the operative word here, too much to take in on first view, but appreciated nonetheless. THE HAUNTING was an excellent choice for Film Club, and likewise for Halloween.
    Oh, and Russ Tamblyn’s leap off the rickety spiral staircase read like an out-take from WEST SIDE STORY, he showed real pep in his step.

  17. Yes, Russ just has to get a bit of acrobatics in.

    When Eleanor arrives at the house there’s a high angle looking down at her from the gables that seems very Hitchcockian.

    Night of the Demon seems a fitting comparison, since it’s also directed by a Val Lewton alumnus. That’s such a Halloweeny film, we must do it next year, if we’re all alive.

  18. Yes, let’s try and stick around, shall we?

  19. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is my vote for best wallpaper movie, or best creepy-scary movie, period.

  20. Christopher Says:

    thats funny..I do that that too…”I’ll do it next year! :o)..” ??
    ?=:oo??..if i’m alive..

  21. I’ve loved this “Haunting” for aeons. Alas, though, I wasn’t too studious about my current viewing of it, and only got as far as Tamblyn and Bloom squabbling about the cards.

    I’m entirely with Guy Budziak about the “Psycho” in “Haunting” — or, at least, the portions that I saw. What surprised me was the Hammer that I seemed to see in it. The first viewing of The House had me thinking of James Bernard’s “Dracula” theme, and the Dyall/Crutchley duo put me in mind of “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” and/or “Kiss of the Vampire.” You know, those grim mortal types who don’t quite manage to warn the protagonists away from The Evil That Lurks.

    I’ll think I’ll ponder what eleanor-lance.com has to say about those black leather gloves …

  22. Eleanor’s sister was in Hammer movies, and Valentine Dyall had a long history in exploiters, including playing the mummy who narrates Secrets of Sex: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/the-sexy-sex-secrets-of-sexy-sex/

    So there’s a Hammer thread alright. What would be really interesting to explore would be the Polanski-Hammer connection, and even more strangely and appealingly, the Kubrick-Hammer connection.

    My grandmother used to say, “Well, I’ll see you next week… if I’m spared.” But she used the phrase ironically.

  23. Excellent, informative bit of writing. And thanks for pointing me to eleanor-lance.com! I wish all films had such obsessive websites! Come on, internet!

    Watching this film last night, I was most struck by how similar portions of it — basically, all the unseen-source-of-weird-noise stuff — were to the stories my mum would tell me and my brother in the 70s when we asked for scary stories. She must have seen The Haunting in the 60s and been left with such a strong impression of its creepiness that it became her template for horror. I must ask her next time I see her.

  24. It’s certainly the most extravagant exploitation of the idea of the unseen terror. Often that principle is exploited in low budget cinema, justifiably so, but it’s bold and exciting to see it done on a huge scale. Wise is to be credited for using his resources and resisting any urge to make things more explicit. See The Haunting remake for evidence of how to do it all wrong, starting from Spielberg’s promotional soundbite, “It’s a great opportunity to use CGI!” No, it isn’t.

  25. Some Film Wallpaper I have noticed over the years:

    Barton Fink
    Il gatto a nove code (Cat o’ Nine Tails)
    Vera Drake
    Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and his Friends)
    Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly)
    Velvet Goldmine

    … and indeed practically any new film set in the 1970s. Today’s production designers are evidently convinced we were all wallpapered up to the eyeballs back then.

  26. I think we were, but most of it was boring old woodchip. I think it’s the Ewardians that really excelled in this. We stripped the woodchip out of our kitchen and found layer after waxy layer of magnificent design. It was like Technicolor archaeology.

    Trainspotting is a good wallpaper movie, perhaps part of the Clockwork Orange influence (Alex’s parents’ flat is a magnificent domestic hell of clashing patterns — did they use Christmas wrapping paper?).

  27. [...] unpleasant example of it in a film. Before I knew it, of course, I had a list. Recently I read a Halloween blog by David Cairns in which he remarked on the wallpaper in The Haunting (see below) and challenged someone to [...]

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