Saturday, December 8, 2012

the haunting of hill house

I first encountered the haunting of hill house in its first cinematic incarnation, the 1963 classic by robert wise starring julie harris, claire bloom, richard johnson, and russ tamblyn. it remains to this day the scariest film I have ever seen, and, seeing as I saw it as a child, it was pivotal in sparking in me an early interest in the paranormal. the film was based on a book by one of my very favourite authors, shirley jackson, who is most famous perhaps for her short story entitled "the lottery."
      I think the brilliance of the haunting of hill house is that it isn't primarily a ghost story. the most frightening thing in this story is not the house itself, but to me it was always the way it shows the fragility of the human psyche, and I feel as though both the book and the robert wise adaptation capture this well. the heroine of the story, eleanor vance (eleanor lance in the film) has just suffered the loss of her mother, who had been ill for years previous, and whom she had attended to up until her death. she still bares some deep-seated guilt regarding the circumstances of her mother's death, and the events that transpire at the haunted hill house only serve to push her already fragile mental state further over the brink. it is clear that she isn't simply insane, but rather a troubled woman who feels out of place even in her own family. the fact that she isn't insane, and that we can't simply chalk her delusions up to the fact that there's just something "wrong" with her, and we see her mind slowly unravel more and more until it reaches breaking point forces us to ask the question - what would it take for us to find ourselves in a similar state? given the right circumstances, would we also be subject to the same delusions as she is?
     I will only briefly address the 1999 version by jan de bont starring catherine zeta-jones, owen wilson, liam neeson, and lili taylor, and only to say that it fails primarily because it neglects this more crucial part of the story. de bont's version is approached simply as a ghost story - and it is a poorly executed one at that. while wise's production focuses on developing the characters and the story, incorporating subtle and psychologically unnerving chills, de bont's version is a cgi train-wreck that abandons all subtlety and goes for effects-driven "scares." what really makes it a failure of an adaptation, however, is that it strays so far from the novel, particularly in terms of the psychology of the characters, that it is almost unrecognizable from the original story. as a result it is no longer scary, but simply laughable.
     in terms of both the book and the 1963 film's portrayal of the paranormal, it is fairly clear that the house is genuinely haunted. although it is possible that some of what we encounter along the way could also be a result of eleanor's state of mind, the other characters also experience the haunting, and so it is clear that at least some, if not most of the events that take place in the house are really transpiring. what I always loved about the robert wise production is that the filmmakers incorporate scenes in which the characters discuss the paranormal, and do so in a thoughtful way. richard johnson takes on the role of doctor montague (in the robert wise film he becomes doctor markway), and he portrays him as learned man of science, a professor of anthropology who believes in the existence of the paranormal, which lends credibility to the events that happen. at one point he tells eleanor that she shouldn't be afraid of the supernatural "when people believed the earth was flat, the idea of a round world scared them silly. then they found out how the round world works. it's the same with the world of the supernatural. until we know how it works, we'll continue to carry around this unnecessary burden of fear." however, this is early on, and it becomes clear that even doctor montague has underestimated the power of the supernatural forces within the house.
     overall, both the novel and the 1963 film are classic works of horror, in part for the very real chills they give due to the supernatural occurrences that the characters experience, and also in part for the way in which they both capture something frightening about the human condition itself. 

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