"Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting Of Hill House.
There is a Hill House in every old town, a lonely sentinel standing guard over the past, refusing to change, and haunted by sordid rumor and half-truths. Neighbors complain that it should be cut out like a malignant tumor to stop the spread of its awful dis-ease. Robert Wise faithfully adapts the Shirley Jackson classic about four disparate individuals who come together for a common cause: to unlock the moribund secret of Hill House.
Dr. Markway enlists the help of Eleanor, Theodora, and (grudgingly) Luke to explore the cavernous depths of the old house, utilizing scientific principles to prove the existence of the haunting as preternatural. The story’s focus is upon Eleanor, a lonely and castigated woman who answers Markway’s letter and becomes intoxicated by Hill House. After eleven years of mental abuse while caring for her elderly mother and her spirit as empty as the echoing chambers of a tomb, Eleanor finally discovers her raison d’être.
Dr. Markway has sacrificed his reputation in this endeavor and, in the final act, clashes with his bullying and skeptical wife. Theo’s acute perceptions seem to indicate some level of the paranormal; her keen insight into the others (and House) akin to ESP. Luke is along for the ride…and martinis. The sexual frisson between Theo and Eleanor, the latter’s desire for the Dr., and Luke’s infatuation with Theo is a palpable tension; hot, thick, and heavy.
Hill House is the true antagonist of the film; it’s dark windows and eerie balustrades, its gothic spires and disjointed architecture are a ubiquitous presence. Through the genius of his cinematic composition and editing, Wise creates suspense and ghostly fear seemingly out of the ether. High angle shots reveal the House’s omniscient viewpoint, like a Giant watching insects scratch fitfully in the dirt. He also uses many low-angle camera shots to create a feeling of claustrophobia and malaise, exposing the ceilings and room’s four corners like a cage. The inexplicable thumping is the heartbeat of Hill House and its sullen whispers a warning. There are subterranean waters that rush like flood currents here, but they exist metaphorically in Eleanor’s fractured mind. She finds her lover at journey’s end and now walks the deserted corridors of Purgatory. In the night. In the dark. Alone. Final Grade: (A)