skip navigation
Remind Me

Behind the Camera On THE HAUNTING

Thursday October, 17 2019 at 10:00 PM
Saturday October, 26 2019 at 06:00 PM

Films in BOLD will Air on TCM *  |   VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

Production began on The Haunting in 1963 with the cast and crew assembled in England. Director Robert Wise used an actual centuries-old manor house near Stratford-upon-Avon for the exteriors of the imposing haunted mansion where most of the story takes place. It was an important location for the film since the house is essentially a character unto itself. The heavy ornate interiors were built on the MGM Studios Borehamwood lot.

Robert Wise made a calculated decision from the beginning to shoot The Haunting in black and white. Wise loved the depth and rich atmospheric quality of black and white and felt it would be perfect to enhance the moody psychological quality of the story.

Overall, the small cast worked very well together throughout production. Julie Harris at times, however, often felt "isolated and unhappy" much like her complicated character Eleanor. She felt like an outsider to the group of other actors.

The other cast members enjoyed working with the remarkably talented Harris, but they believed her sense of isolation was self-imposed. Co-star Claire Bloom said in a contemporary interview that Harris "wouldn't" talk to her, and Russ Tamblyn found Harris "aloof." Bloom, Tamblyn and Richard Johnson would spend time together during breaks from shooting and have dinner together often, but Harris rarely joined them. Claire Bloom said later that she eventually realized that this was simply Harris's way of approaching the part to make her performance more effective, and she didn't take Harris's standoffishness personally.

Robert Wise took a subtle approach to the lesbianism hinted at in The Haunting of Hill House. He felt that the sexual tension between the women characters Theo and Eleanor added an interesting layer to the psychological drama. "It's obvious in the story and what we put on the screen that Claire Bloom's character is a lesbian," said Wise as quoted in Sergio Leeman's 1995 book Robert Wise on His Films. "We originally had a scene at the beginning with Claire in the bedroom of her apartment, and she's angry and yelling out the window at somebody. Then she goes and writes with lipstick on the mirror, 'I hate you.' I guess we caught a glimpse of the person in the car, showing it was a woman. Anyway, we established that this was a love affair with another woman. We thought that labeled it too heavily and hurt the scene, so we dropped it. It was better to let it develop when Julie Harris turns to her in the scene out on the terrace and refers to her as being unnatural."

Every member of the cast enjoyed working with Robert Wise, who had a long-standing reputation as a strong director with great instincts and no ego. Julie Harris remembered him as a "calm gentleman" who never got ruffled by anything, and Claire Bloom found working with him "marvelous."

Every creative choice that Robert Wise made in the making of The Haunting was to contribute to the film's spooky atmosphere of psychological horror. Wise had many cinematic tricks up his sleeve gleaned from his years working as an editor and director. He had learned a great deal under the tutelage of famed low budget horror producer Val Lewton at RKO while directing films for him including The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Working under the confines of limited budgets, Lewton had adopted a "less is more" philosophy in which scares were generated through creative suggestion rather than by showing anything explicitly. "If you make the screen dark enough," Lewton once told the Los Angeles Times, "the mind's eye will read anything into it you want!"

Embracing Lewton's philosophy, Wise set about creating a frightening atmosphere in The Haunting with great subtlety through the use of interesting camera angles, sharp black and white photography, and visually striking sets. Wise also used the creative flourish of shooting some of the film's exteriors with infrared film, a trick that heightened the contrast of black and white and created a sinister feeling around the house and its surroundings. His use of special effects was sparse and simple, operating on the principal that scares didn't come from blood and gore, but rather the mind's imagination.

The simple yet highly effective techniques that Wise used is nowhere more apparent than in the effect in which a door in the house appears to buckle and bend by itself. "The door was all laminated wood, layers of wood on top of others," explained Wise. "All I had was a strong prop man on the other side who would push it and move it. That's all it was and it scared the hell out of everybody."

Another trick that Wise used was a bit of image distortion. "I shot the film in Panavision and, at that time, there wasn't any wide-angle lens in anamorphic," Wise added. "The widest was maybe a 40mm. I wanted to make those hallways look long and dark and dank. I called the president of Panavision, Bob Gottschalk, and asked, 'Don't you have any wider-angle lens? I really want to get an almost unreal feeling about this house.' He said, 'We have developed a 30mm, but it's not ready for use yet. It's got a lot of distortion in it.' I said, 'That's exactly what I need for certain places - I want the house to look almost alive.' He didn't want to let me have it. I kept insisting and he finally relented on the proviso that I understood that it was not a finished lens and had distortions in it. I had to sign a document saying that I was willing to accept the extra amount of distortion and would never go back to Panavision and complain about it. I used it most effectively in just certain shots."

With the majority of the film's action taking place inside the house, Robert Wise also took the time to build suspense slowly and deliberately by paying careful attention to each scene. By keeping the small cast together in the various rooms of the house, Wise emphasized the claustrophobic nature of the story, which helped to increase dramatic tension.

For some of the scenes in which characters are tormented by loud ghostly sounds coming from the house, Wise had the sounds on playback so that the actors could react to them authentically. It was a technique that they found very useful and effective for creating just the right mood of terror.

One of the film's central props, the spiral staircase, provided some unique challenges. "It was scary when you were up on that thing and it was rocking around," said Wise. "The one shot we did on it that fascinates people the most is when the camera is at the bottom and goes up. We designed the banister of the stairway to be so wide and thick that it would fit a small rig with wheels on it--a little, light dolly that would hold a hand-held camera. We had our camera on that and we had a control wire underneath, all the way down. We simply took the camera up to the top on this rig, started it, rolled it down, and then reversed the film. It was all done on that balustrade."

The Haunting opened in September 1963 and promptly proceeded to scare the pants off of movie going audiences who dared to set foot in theaters. The sophisticated film set a new high standard for the horror genre and quickly became known as the quintessential haunted house/ghost story film.

by Andrea Passafiume