Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Making Monsters #10: The Haunting

The Haunting is, by far, the scariest G-rated movie of all time. Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic novel The Haunting of Hill House, the story of a paranormal expert who brings two women with psychic abilities and a young skeptic to investigate an estate believed to have been haunted for generations, relies almost completely on the power of suggestion to generate suspense. Wise creates a malevolent character out of Hill House almost entirely from askew camera angles, the interplay of light and shadow and, especially, mysterious ambient noises on the soundtrack such as children's laughter and mysterious groans. It's maybe the best cinematic equivalent to the feeling of being a kid in bed with an overactive imagination ascribing sinister motives to the shadows on the wall.

The movie's overt "Boo!" moments are so few that they have a lot of oomph when they arrive. One of the most memorable is the scene where the characters are in a locked room and, accompanied by booming noise on the soundtrack, the door appears to warp inward from the force of something very powerful trying to break in. It's a very simple effect - a rubber door being pushed by crew members - that is frighteningly believable thanks to Wise and his crew's care to keep the story grounded, not to mention his cast's convincingly terrified reactions. I like a horror movie that skillfully piles on the gore and monster makeup as much as anyone, and at least one movie I've yet to write about this month takes a much more pyrotechnic approach to the haunted house story to brilliant effect. But it's healthy for the horror fan to be reminded sometimes about moments like this that rely on the power of the imagination. It's telling that 1999's remake of The Haunting, a CGI spectacular, is mostly forgotten, while that same summer saw two smash hit horror movies, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, that owed a great deal more to Wise's atmospheric masterpiece.

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