Look at the face above, doesn’t that say it all? There are dozens of moments of virtuoso horror conduction in ROBERT WISE’s masterpiece THE HAUNTING, yet the presentation of that visage is the one I anticipate with equal excitement and dread. WISE has directed classic films in nearly every genre, he edited CITIZEN KANE and uncredited scenes in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, more importantly as far as what we are talking about here, he was the protégé of dyed in the wool dark conjurer VAL LEWTON. Here we find the ultimate tribute to his mentor.
The camera’s concentrated stare at that (imagined/not imagined) face on the wall is a moment when we can catch WISE in the act of basically teaching the audience how to watch a horror film. Don’t be surprised if for the rest of the movie’s running time you are subconsciously on the look out for secondary images within the constant clashing of patterns and off angles within the nearly breathing beast known as Hill House. I have to laugh when people use words like “subtle” and “suggestive” when describing THE HAUNTING. Make no mistake, this is an aggressive mind-fuck campaign you’re witnessing. Just because you’re too clueless to realize you’re being mugged does not mean your wallet isn’t already empty.
Watching THE HAUNTING once again, it was my intention to do a post pointing out the near onslaught of points of unease, the countless eyes on doorknobs and statues that glare at the occupants, the molten black tar shadows that cling to the walls, the endless maze of twisted corners and that damn spiraling, dizzying staircase, but boy did I get lost in the halls of Hill House myself yet again. It seems no matter how many times I visit this gothic funhouse I never exit the same door that I did the last time. I went in looking for that face on the wall and I exited transfixed by another.
THE HAUNTING hasn’t the luxury of time on its hands to deliver the full all-encompassing apprehension of SHIRLEY JACKSON’s novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, but a finer facsimile I doubt is humanly possible. Several of the film’s b-lines and amplifications can even be seen as improvements. CLAIRE BLOOM certainly brings an effervescence to the character of “Theo” not found on the page and well, if any actor has ever “owned” a part it is JULIE HARRIS as Eleanore “Nell” Lance (Vance in the novel). Oh yes, here is another example of your Unk’s favorite type of horror character, heroism-free and verging on unsympathetic. Quit simply, Nell’s a mess and easy pickins’ for Hill House.
When Dr. Markway (RICHARD JOHNSON) invites Nell to join his small team of investigators at the title mansion he does so due to his knowledge of her attracting paranormal activity in the past (which Nell denies.) He has no idea that she has recently lost her overbearing mother to whom she was caretaker. Nell jumps at the chance to start a new life and be free but the reality is she is hardly equipped for the outside world. Her life has been spent fulfilling the needs of others and suppressing herself. She talks a good game (mostly to herself via voice over) but when the world doesn’t accept her with open arms, she recklessly attempts to flee back into the womb. Her real mother may no longer be available but the mother that is Hill House certainly is. (Notice that the most haunted room in the joint is the nursery.)
We are told many stories throughout the course of the film (and novel) some are relevant, some are conjecture and some are outright lies (Nell seems most happy when offering up falsities about her stone li(e)ons and fictional apartment.) One tale that overshadows all is the legend of the paternal evil in the house, Hugh Crain, but if you ask me he is a diversion from the source of Nell’s real threat. The last occupant of Hill House was Hugh’s daughter Abigail and her death perfectly echoes Nell’s mother’s right down to an unanswered knocking on a wall for assistance with a cane. During one of the supernatural visitations we even witness Nell responding to a similar knock on the wall thinking it IS her mother.
When Nell find the words “Eleanor come home” scrawled on a wall by a ghostly scribe we automatically imagine her recently departed mom pleading for her return but is it in actuality this other woman begging her to stay? As in “Come home to what you are used to Nell, you were born to be subservient to the likes of me, not a social being with a life of your own.”
In the film (not so much in the novel) there is an unmistakable sexual tension between the self possessed Theo and Nell that Nell avoids. She puts on airs that she is attracted to Dr. Markway, but I think this too is one of her lies…a cover up. (To be honest, I consider every male character both living and dead in the movie to be a sort of “false lead.”) She calls Theo “one of nature’s mistakes” and it’s almost like someone else is speaking through her (her mother’s words? Words once said to Nell?) It is clear that Nell’s sister Dora has started a family, why not Nell? She may complain of having to take care of her ill mother but perhaps that’s been a convenient way to avoid something else.
When Markway’s wife appears and eliminates the doctor’s usefulness as a decoy, Nell really begins to unravel. She realizes that there is no new world waiting to accept her and that she has no real identity to fall back on. The thoughts that we have been privy to from Nell sound a lot like those of a self-destructive drug addict (or cult member) trying to justify their actions. She wants to loose herself to something bigger to avoid looking at herself and tellingly, the first fright the house delivers her is a mirror (does she see a face or a wall?). Nell has been praying for freedom for eleven years but now that she has it can she handle it?
(Oh-oh, we’re about to crash into a spoiler tree…jump out now!) In the book, Nell, rather than abandoning the false sense of security and purpose she’s found and returning to a world where she perceives herself as having nothing, completely obliterates herself by driving into a tree.
“I am really doing it, I am doing it all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really doing it by my-self.”
Oh Nelly Nell, this is the same fucking mistake you’ve made your whole life, confusing self actualization with fulfilling the needs of others…in this case the needs of Hill House.
The movie lets her off the hook a smidge more than the book, as the steering wheel is clearly shown to be controlled by some unseen force that Nell resists. Still, there is the acknowledgment by Theo that Nell may have finally gotten exactly what she wanted. Unable to get a firm grip on either Theo’s or Markaway’s coat tails, Nell essentially resigns herself to the life (or death) of a shut-in, one of those who are housebound and “walk alone” (an eventual recluse herself JACKSON can be seen as the patron saint of the hermetic).
Nell’s experiences in Hill House though often frightening, also involved feelings of belonging that she had never experienced before. She had hope, there were possibilities around the corner and she felt important not just as a caretaker for someone else’s needs but because of her own individual gifts. It’s almost as if it were the positive feelings that she could not maintain that led her the most astray. It reminds me of the time I thought I’d help my friend’s gold fish by giving them clean water to swim in and they all died of shock.
It’s easier to think that Nell was hoodwinked and therefore not responsible for her actions. In my recent viewing though I noticed an expression on her face during her kamikaze drive that I hadn’t before. It’s an expression of ecstasy at having given in to the seductive, malevolent force, for having trashed the idea of “living” for good.
So here’s my new dilemma; I don’t know what’s scarier, that face on the wall I started this post talking about or this newly discovered one. Was Nell happy to stay at Hill House? Did she end up gladly trading in an imagined inescapable situation for a very real one? Did she happily hop from one station of servitude to another, one mother to another? Look at the face below, doesn’t that say it all?