Wednesday, October 30, 2013

An Old Dark House

The Haunting (1963) was Ms. Spenser's choice. She is a bit of a Shirley Jackson fan, and besides, she has stronger nerves than me.

It is based on Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, I knew that much. And that it was about a haunted house. I was right and wrong.

Hill House has a long and tragic history of madness and death, and is now deserted. Richard Johnson, playing a psychic researcher, wants to rent the house from the current absentee owner to conduct an experiment in the supernatural. In invites a long list of subjects, but only two show up: psychic Claire Bloom, going by the single name Theodora and neurotic Julie Harris. Playboy Russ Tamblyn is on hand as a representative of the owner. That completes the party, because the creepy caretaker and the cook won't stay after dark.

And after dark the spooks come out.

This is pretty much what I expected, but what I had not expected was Julie Harris. Her character is a nervous, spirit-haunted, death-obsessed woman. She had spent years caring for her terminally ill mother, then found herself alone in the world, sleeping on her sister's couch, unable to shake off the sickroom stench. When she is invited to stay at a haunted house (chosen because she was involved in a rain of stones as a little girl), she jumps at the chance. She thinks that the house wants her, and she is frightened out of her wits - but she wants to be taken. It's a wonderful role, and Harris is incredible in it.

The other roles have their charms - the down-to-earth researcher, Claire Bloom's sensual, backbiting psychic and the rude rustic caretakers are all very well. We don't get much of Russ Tamblyn - too sunny for this show. But it is Harris' role that makes the movie.

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