Friday, October 26, 2018

The Halloween List: The Haunting (1963) and Kwaidan (1964)

Previously: My Friend Dahmer and Suicide Club

The Haunting (1963)

This has to be up there with the best of black-and-white supernatural films, neck-and-neck with the classic Frankenstein. It’s based one of the all-time great novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, about researchers who study whether a notoriously haunted house has anything true to its legends. Jackson inspired Matheson, King, and an army of other Horror writers to write similar stories, yet hers holds up thanks to fierce psychology. The movie focuses on Eleanor, a psychically susceptible woman carrying misplaced guilt over the death of her mother, who was always demanded too much of her time and stifled her growth – and who died the one time Eleanor ignored her.

It’s a slow burn that is well worth the time you put in. Everyone has a strong personality that the house is going to bend. The mansion itself is gorgeous, and only feels more old-fashioned and unwelcome in 2018. It doesn’t need cobwebs and dungeons. It has excessive signs of wealth that nobody wants anymore, and they’re all freshly cleaned. And when we get our special effects, they are remarkable for their time. There’s an effect where a door pulses inward as though it’s a giant heart beating with the life of a ghostly building, that frankly is one of the coolest practical effects I’ve ever seen.

Now, no movie is going to usurp Jackson’s prose. Her narrative was able to get deep inside Eleanor’s head in a way film can’t, although the script uses frequent internal monologues in an attempt to compensate. As a result Julie Harris’s performance as Eleanor is the least impressive of the movie, because she’s so put upon, at first jumping at her own reflection, then weirded out by inexplicable cold spots, and kept up nights by the paranormal activity. For a movie, Eleanor’s the last fun role. At one point in cinema she would have been the focus on sympathy. Now, you want her to stand up for herself already. It’s something that works better on the page, where her trauma-influenced thought processes are clear.

Claire Bloom’s highly confident Theodora, who delights in finding people’s weaknesses and psychoanalyzing them, is more cutting and engaging. So is Richard Johnson’s Dr. Malkway, who runs the experiment with a calm and a fascination, always assured that this house is part of a design that science just has to digest, up until it puts his researchers in peril. The ensemble carries the scares, especially when they start sticking together out of an unspoken need to not be alone here.

One of the first things that struck me was the confidence of the camera. Hill House is deliberately constructed with no right angles, so often we’ll be in a room the walls of which angle outward or inward in the middle of the screen, or at the edges. The camera confidently carries us through these spaces, making them feel as off-putting for us as they should for the people trying to sleep and work there.

Much of the action is done with classic still camera shots, but there’s one point at which we get actual shaky cam. It’s jarring to see in that era, and more jarring because it absolutely fits the shock we’re experiencing in the story. My friend Briarcastle pointed out that this type of shot was also used in bad monster movies of the time, and what actually is striking about it is seeing it used as a stylistic choice rather than as the norm in a modern Found Footage movie.

Kwaidan (1964)

Kwaidan is a classic anthology film of four Japanese ghost stories. It was early in Japan’s history of making colorized films and yet holds up as one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made thanks to careful use of real settings, vibrant backdrops, and a sense of how to frame people moving through spaces. It’s a welcome respite from the saturated shadows of modern HD American Horror film, with no CG augmentation on scenery. You can tell the director prizes having color available to him, and makes the most of silhouettes against orange dusk, and torn red tapestries flapping against dilapidated white walls.

Being sharp to look at greatly helps the slow pacing. This is a classic film in that sense, too; it’s from a much more patient era in visual storytelling. It holds up because it uses its pacing to build anticipating, and the longer we spend in these lovingly designed spaces, the more we feel grounded and vulnerable. Kwaidan  is retelling classic folk tales of vengeful brides and ghosts hungering for poets, and it wants you to soak in the feeling of seeing them in a way they’d never been told before.

I grew up in New York, and these stories still felt familiar. There's a structure to many folk tales across cultures of normal people who stumbled across something they shouldn't. New England easily could be home to the basic premise of "The Snow Woman," the short film about a demon in the mountains who is normally murderous but spares a kind-hearted man for so long as he never tells anyone what he witnessed. It's distinctly Japanese in everyone's sensibilities and in their economy and architecture, and that authenticity helps. But there's an evil joy in knowing people around the world all had their own versions of campfire stories about selfish spirits.

If none of the four short films feel particularly short, it’s because Kwaidan is over three hours long. It tells simple stories with a gradual pace, and especially in its first two stories, lets us linger in politics and small inhumanity before the supernatural rears up. During the first, “The Black Hair,” about a samurai who abandons his faithful first wife to join a more prosperous family, my household was soon rooting for the horrors to catch up to him. These aren’t just old-fashioned stories. They’re highly competent in the way the most suspenseful modern films also operate.

The quartet of shorts are all placed deliberately, too. After the first two stories you’ll expect that there will only be one twist, and the third film, “Hoichi the Earless,” knows this and is waiting to destroy your expectations. If you don’t have three hours in one sitting (I sure didn’t), the shorts still work apart from each other. Ironically they’re each about as long as episodes in a Netflix drama, so this movie from over fifty years ago has survived to benefit from a new form.

This was a treat to watch. I recommend seeing a new transfer of the film if possible. My first viewing was from a worn VHS and still looked striking, but there’s more detail in higher resolution. Hulu and Criterion both have gorgeous versions that are readily accessible.

Come back Monday for reviews of Veronica and... Veronica?


  1. I'll have to look for it on Hulu then.
    The old version of The Haunting far outweighed the remake several years back. It was awful, relying way too much on special effects.


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