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The Haunting (1963) (DVD)

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A study in needless excess, Jan de Bont's 1999 remake of The Haunting deserves discussion only for an explanation of what it did wrong, its failure thrown into sharp relief by the film it remade. Where de Bont offered digitized twists on every haunted-house cliché of the past few centuries—look out for those crazy sculptures that come to life, Catherine Zeta-Jones!—Robert Wise's 1963 original gets one of its biggest scares from nothing more than a dull, persistent thud and a doorknob turning slowly back and forth. Adapting Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting Of Hill House, Wise (who squeezed in the project between directing West Side Story and The Sound Of Music) and screenwriter Nelson Gidding keep the ghosts off-screen. In fact, they might not even be there at all. Set in a tragedy-attracting house that was "born bad," the film unfolds over a couple of days during which iconoclastic anthropology professor Richard Johnson plays host to Hill House heir Russ Tamblyn, psychic Claire Bloom, and sensitive soul Julie Harris in order to study the house's supernatural qualities. He doesn't reckon on Harris bringing her own ghosts with her. On a commentary track featuring Wise, Gidding, and the four leads, Gidding recalls asking Jackson whether her novel could be read as the story of one woman's nervous breakdown rather than that of a haunted house. "No, but it's a damn good idea," Jackson replied, and The Haunting owes much of its success to the way it runs with the notion. Tamblyn's playboy ways, Bloom's thinly veiled lesbianism, and especially Johnson's fatherly attractiveness all spark against Harris' neuroses. Then again, all the neuroses in the world don't quite explain the bumps in the night, the cold spots, and the bulging doors. Wise plays it both ways: Sound effects, disorienting camera work, expert editing, and Humphrey Searle's discomfiting score all suggest, without showing, a horrible presence waiting in the wings. Though parts of The Haunting are talky, even that works in the film's favor, as Tamblyn's glib dismissals and Johnson's calm professorial tone are unable to clear up the mystery at its core. After all, the specters that can't be seen, classified, or otherwise contained are the scariest of all.