Friday, April 18, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House and assorted haunted house films

I've been wanting to read the book The Haunting of Hill House for quite some time, and was finally able to read it recently.  And of course after doing so I couldn't resist watching the film adaptations, along with some others that while not adaptations certainly have a lot in common with it.

The Haunting of Hill House

The book is a fairly quick read and also an enjoyable one.   It centers around four people going to a known haunted house to try and document whether or not it is truly haunted.  We see things mostly from Eleanor Vance's perspective, a young woman who has spent her whole life taking care of her mother who has recently passed away.  You become to really feel for her and her desperate need to start a new life with some sense of adventure.  She's both frightened by the house and drawn to it.  Theodora, the enigmatic and slightly flighty other woman there is also an interesting character, though Dr. Montague (the one who invited them all here) and Luke Sanderson (the heir who will one day own the house) a little less so. 
 The book had some well executed scares, probably so well done because none of them seem over the top to the point of ridiculousness.  The book picks up the pace as it goes until it reaches its dramatic end.  I highly recommend it.

When I went to read the book I didn't expect a Stephen King connection, but I found one anyway.  Eleanor is chosen for the study because of an event that happened when she was very young - stones rained down on her house for three days.  Eleanor's sister's name is Carrie.

A note: If like me, you get the Kindle version, don't read the introduction.  It spoils the entire book.  I'm not sure if other versions also contain that same introduction or not.  Fortunately, I caught an amazon review mentioning that so I wasn't spoiled when I went in.

The Haunting (1963)

Perhaps the only true adaptation of the book is this film.  It follows the novel closely, though it does add in some traces of romance to the story that weren't there.  It's pretty well executed, including the scares, and I enjoyed the performances quite a bit.  I was expecting a possible change in the ending, but it in fact stays quite accurate.  I recommend it.

House on Haunted Hill (1958)

While this film pre-dates the novel by a year and therefore can't be an adaptation, there are striking similarities.  A slightly larger cast is brought to a haunted house for the night to see if they can survive.  If they do, they'll be given $10,000 a piece.  An old couple serves as caretakers of the house, but they leave as night falls.  The young woman of the group is the one who is preyed upon the most by the spirits.  In this case though, the spirits aren't real and it's all a plot.  I won't spoil the whole thing for those who haven't seen it though, it really is a good film and Vincent Price is fantastic here as always.  Some of the effects are a little silly but I think the walking skeleton would have scared the pants off a young me.
If you've ever heard of the old movie where they used  the gimmick of a floating plastic skeleton hovering over the crowd in the theater, this is the film they're talking about.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

This one is based on a novel by Richard Matheson and set in England, but once again four people are sent to a house to investigate its haunted nature.  One is a scientist and two are mediums.  It reminded me a lot in style of the Hammer horror films of the era, and Roddy McDowall gives a fantastic performance as one of the mediums.  Similar to the scientific approach Matheson took to vampires in I Am Legend, there's an attempt at science explaining spirits in the house.  The scares are amped up considerably for this one, and I was liking it all very much until it reached the final reveal of why the spirit was so angry.  It's just absolutely ridiculous.  Still, I would say the ride is worth it as long as you ignore the ending.

The Haunting (1999)

For the remake of the original adaptation, a lot of changes are made.  The guests are brought to the house under the idea that they are trying to cure their insomnia, and the story of the house is changed to say that the man who built it did not have any children.  Except we eventually find out he did?  It's kind of confusing.  We eventually find out that Nell is the descendant of Hugh Crain's wife, but if Hugh Crain kept all the children in the house, how did her ancestor escape and live like normal and only now Nell is being called back?  Why not her mom?  Why not her sister?  It's all a bit silly.

That said, the set design is gorgeous and the cast is decent.  The biggest problem is that the film isn't scary.   That's largely because they rely on CGI very heavily and bring things too far outside of reality to be frightening.  A door that stretches until it becomes a hand and throws someone across a room just doesn't work as a scare.  I should also not be laughing when someone gets decapitated, and yet I did.

The King connections continue, as he was originally going to write the screenplay for this remake.  When that deal fell apart, he wrote Rose Red.

 House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The horror wimp I once was walked out of this film when I was watching it in a theater because it freaked me out too much.  I figured, having now watched the original for context, and the fact that I've seen lots of gore in slashers, the Evil Dead films, the first Hellraiser, etc. surely I would not be as scared of this film as I once was.

I was wrong.  Fear is, of course, mostly a mental trick we pull on ourselves, so it's possible my memories of being scared created an apprehension in me and made it all much worse, but I think that this is the scariest film I've ever seen.

I'm not saying it will scare everyone.  Apparently some people think the main problem with the film is that it's not scary at all.  But for me, this pushed all the right buttons.  People making quick, jerky, sometimes blurry movements, grotesque figures, an insane asylum where the doctor is just as mad as his patients, dark cramped corners, spooky sounds, everything covered in a thick coat of dust that you're just waiting for bugs to crawl out of, faces without eyes, mouths full of large jagged teeth, and a ghost like creature made of writhing bodies and warped faces.  Yes, this film disturbed me.

It's interesting because especially toward the end, there is CGI used here as well.  But I think the sets and the way the film is lit goes a long way in making this work far better than the CGI in The Haunting.  Everything in that movie looked far too shiny and plasticine, while here it looks smoky and dirty.  They also combine them better with practical effects here, and there's a lot more reliance on psychological horror.

The story has a lot of similarities to the original film, but obviously they changed it this time so that the house is in fact very much haunted.  While I think they could have changed the twists around a little so that those who had seen the original wouldn't know what was coming, I do think that one angle does a lot to change this one and justify the remake.  Though as you can see by the various films I've listed here, you could just as easily make this its own haunted house film with a new title, because they all have the same basic set up most of the time anyway.

While I'm not sure I'll ever watch this one again (at least not for a very long time, I had to work really heavily to distract myself so I could sleep that night) I appreciate it for what it is and I'd recommend it for anyone who likes creepy and disturbing horror.

I thought about including Rose Red here, since King did take a lot of influence from The Haunting of Hill House when he wrote it, but I think I will save it and its sequel for its own post when I get around to Stephen King original screenplays.

1 comment:

  1. I still have yet to read Haunting of Hill House, but quite like the movie. It’s a nice character piece that combines scientific skepticism with the ghostly tropes, and its two big scenes of something on the other side of a door are marvelously well executed. The remake is bigger and flashier, but yeah, they try to do so much with the story that it starts to unravel, the CGI is not good, and Jan de Bont being a great action director doesn’t mean he makes for a great horror director, with him completely failing to make use of those great sets to build much mood or tension.

    House on Haunted Hill is a fun film, but among all the William Castle works I’ve seen, it’s not one of my favorites. I’ve got a few on my Exchange list that I hope we’ll get to some time. The remake is definitely one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s all through gimmicks, but they’re gimmicks that work and William Malone plays them so artfully that this is a film that constantly sticks with me. Sadly, his subsequent films, while just as chilling, don’t have the lighter touch of fun that makes this one bearable, so they can be a bit much.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Legend of Hell House. I remember liking the cast and a lot of the build, but finding the ending disappointing, too. This is one I want to read before I give it another watch.

    I’d also like to recommend the 1980 film The Changeling. It puts a few interesting spins on the tropes and was an influence on Ring.

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