Saturday, February 20, 2010

How to Make a Scary Film

Film: The Haunting
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

The world is filled with movies, and many of those movies are bad. There are probably more bad comedies than any other genre. Coming in second is undoubtedly bad horror movies. It’s not that difficult to gross people out or make them jump, but to really inflict terror on an audience is incredibly difficult. There’s a reason that great horror movies are treasured by those who love a good scare. It’s not just the visceral thrill—it’s also the fact that it’s so rare.

One of the standout examples of a truly magnificent horror film is Robert Wise’s The Haunting from 1963. This is a film that exudes more atmosphere than any ten slasher movies or knock-off alleged scary films. The Haunting is a relatively low-budget film, contains almost no special effects, and has only five actors who are in the film for any length of time. There is no giant monster, no ghost, no dude in a rubber suit. Nada. And yet this is one of the scariest film experiences ever created.

The film is based on the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” A researcher into psychic phenomena, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), has rented a house reported to be cursed since the time of its building. Several people have died around the house, and always in terrible or unusual circumstances. His goal is to discover a true psychic phenomenon, a true ghostly occurrence or spiritual sighting.

To help him, he enlists three people. The first is Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris), a frail woman who can sense the presence of spirits. Nell has little life experience, having spent the last decade caring for her ailing, overbearing mother. The recent loss of her mother has left Nell particularly fragile, in no small part because Nell’s sister, who she lives with, blames her for the mother’s death. The second arrival is Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has no last name, at least publicly. Theo is a witch of sorts, and also something of a sensitive. Third is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a skeptic who hopes to inherit Hill House some day.

Almost immediately, strange happenings start around the house. Noises that only some of the people hear, terrifying thumping footsteps, doorknobs moving on their own, and voices all begin to plague the new tenants. Particularly affected is Eleanor, who is more sensitive to such things than she thought. Eleanor herself is strangely attracted to Hill House just as she is completely terrified by it. While frightened of the terror and unexplainable noises, Eleanor, for the first time, feels as if she belongs somewhere. She is also attracted to Markway, and is disturbed when his wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell) appears.

Much of the film takes place in Eleanor’s head in the form of her thoughts. These start merely as her thoughts but quickly become more and more disturbing. One of her final voiceover segments is brilliantly directed, particularly for the time in which the film was created. While Luke, Theo, and Dr. Markway argue, they slowly fade into black while Eleanor is brightly lit. Her inner monologue begins, and the voices of the others drown out.

Robert Wise, who began his career doing uncredited filming on Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is perhaps better known for his musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. As will be apparent when I get to that particular film, I dislike musicals in general and that one in specific with a burning passion. However, The Haunting is so good, and so good specifically because of the direction and genius of Robert Wise that I can forgive him Austrian children singing about deer and sunshine.

What makes the film so good is precisely the fact that nothing is ever shown. The closest we get to a real spook is a rickety spiral staircase, a few statues, and some bulging woodwork. All of the scares here are done with magnificent camera work and incredible use of sound. There is truly only one great jump moment, and this comes very near the end of the film. Despite this, the film is oppressively frightening. Wise uses camera angles and tricks to convey the fear and paranoia of the people in the house.

True terror is nearly impossible to achieve in any audience. Scare ‘em, sure, but to genuinely create a feeling of dread and paranoia in the people watching the film is difficult, and because of this, the gold standard for horror movies. If you can truly get your audience to feel as if their own life is haunted during the watching of your film, you have succeeded in no small respect, and that is what Wise does here.

One of my favorite movies of all time, El Espinazo del Diablo, begins with a line about the nature of the spiritual visitors who plague Eleanor: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” Hill House seems to be all these things, but my favorite of these is “an emotion suspended in time.” Hill House wants Eleanor, just as Eleanor’s mother wanted her, just as former resident Abigail Crain wanted her caretaker. Hill House, and Eleanor, and the film itself, are all filled with pent-up emotions that both cannot be revealed and must be released. Is the house truly haunted? Is Eleanor manifesting psychic abilities to remain in the house and become the center of attention? These questions are not answered. Also unanswered is the question as to whether Eleanor—or any of us—truly belong anywhere, or are deserving of love and acceptance.

Special effects would have killed this film. What the audience imagines is always more terrifying than what they are shown. Anyone looking to make a scary film that actually scares someone should watch this one over and over. Skip the stupid remake. This one is the one that asks you to walk alone.

Why to watch The Haunting: True terror.
Why not to watch: You need to have special effects, gore, and a guy dressed like Satan.


  1. This was one of those movies that, when I finished watching it, I realized I had been holding my breath and clutching at a pillow for its duration. It's so good, for all the reasons you mentioned, and perhaps the scariest no-effects film ever made! I love that it's all left up to our imagination. Hubby is a slasher movie aficionado and I keep telling him he should check this one out.

    1. My experience with bringing other people to this film is sadly not very good. I've used this in film classes before, and most of the scary movie fans are really underwhelmed by it. I think there's a level of desensitization that happens with horror fans that gets them to the point that they require the gore and splatter. People who like trashy horror won't like this film in general.

  2. The trick to true horror is to never make the reveal. Leave it up to our mind to imagine and it can get truly effective. Something that lurks in the shadows or a dark presence. Though I must admit that the jump scare on top of the staircase is very effective. Maybe because jump scares are used so sparsely in this movie.

    1. When you don't show the monster, the audience makes it the scariest thing they can think of. Often, the reveal ends up being the low point of a horror movie because it can't live up to what our minds can create.