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The Haunting

D: Robert Wise (1963)
with Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn.

Watching the theatrical coming-attractions trailers for 1999's The Haunting unnerves me. Director Jan De Bont's 1999 remake of Robert Wise's 1963 classic adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, features a cast as strong as the original. Where once Harris, Bloom, Tamblyn, and Johnson entered the house, now it's Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor. Without getting into quibbles over difference, the overpowering genius of the earlier Haunting is that so little really happens. In this new film the house is shown actually morphing into a living creature. Ornamental heads, wall carvings, and gargoyles come to life, threatening the visitors. In Wise's version, the House came alive because you heard it start to breathe and felt its evil fill the screen. Sharp cuts, dazzling camera moves, and altered rhythms of pacing all served to unsettle and shock. In 1963, a friend and I caught a double bill of The Phantom of the Opera and The Haunting at the Fox Theater in Hackensack, New Jersey. My mom warned me about The Phantom -- how it was one of the scariest films ever and I should be braced for grotesque, terrifying horror. Phantom was up first, Terence Fisher's tepid 1963 version staring Herbert Lom. We sailed through it and were ready for anything. Next up was The Haunting, about which we knew nothing. It started slowly enough. A psychic research team of obviously troubled characters enters a house that is supposed to be haunted. We get to know the characters, the powerful cast just driving this film along. Slowly, the house shows life: evil life. It becomes a dangerous character in the story. There are no monsters, no special effects; it is almost all done with camera angles, cutting, sound, and camera movement. We were screaming by the end. So was the rest of the audience. I screamed more at basic cuts than I ever did at elaborately designed monsters. This was as scary as anything I'd seen on film.

Over a decade later, we showed the film for a course at UT. A reasonably large crowd came to watch it. In the beginning, they were laughing. It certainly seemed cornier than it had when we were kids. Was this audience going to buy this movie or would they think it was stupid? As the film progressed, the house came to life. By the end people were screaming; the film still had the power to shock. The very ordinariness of the horror -- danger can come from any wall, any floor, any corner -- made it so powerful.

The diversity of Wise's career often hides its richness. Doomed forever to be remembered as the auteur of The Sound of Music (1965) Wise's credits include The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Sand Pebbles (1966), and Star Trek (1979). Wise's career is staggering in terms of quality and the array of stories. Wise made a horror masterpiece (The Haunting), a science fiction masterpiece (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and a musical masterpiece (West Side Story). The filmography includes Westerns, comedies, period pieces, crime and war movies. Wise started out as an editor, earning a credit on such films as Dorothy Arzner's Dance Girl, Dance (1940) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). In 1941 he edited Citizen Kane and then The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), supervising the completion of the film after the studio took it over from Orson Welles. Wise graduated to directing and worked with Val Lewton. First he took over The Curse of the Cat People (1944) from another director, turning it into an atmospheric, moody gem, and the next year, The Body Snatcher (1945). He worked in B movies until The Set-Up (1949) and then graduated. In one seven-year period that started in 1959, he co-directed West Side Story (with Jerome Robbins), and directed Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine in Two for the Seesaw (1962), The Haunting (1963), The Sound of Music (1965), and The Sand Pebbles (1966). Every time I've seen The Haunting on the big screen, it has worked. On the small screen, with the numerous household distractions from kitchen to bathroom, it's different. It's easy to admire the film, but its spell is not so easily cast. The real power of this movie is when it's you and the house alone in the dark with no real way out. The Haunting builds its mood until, through sheer cinema and imagination, the house is alive and it's after you!-- Louis Black


Tales of Manhattan

D. Julien Duvivier (1942)
with Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Cesar Romero, Roland Young.

I'm a sucker for those episodic Hollywood movies where they hitch a bunch of essentially short stories around a theme (If I Had a Million, (1932), Flesh and Fantasy (1943). Unlike most of the standard Hollywood studio shorts produced from the Twenties through the Fifties, these anthologies could often include major stars in spectacular turns. Certain directors, who otherwise worked in features, excelled at these shorts. If I Had a Million, with its multiple directors, is probably the best. It certainly contains the best sequence of any of them. The premise of the film has an eccentric millionaire giving different people a million dollars and to see how it affects their lives. In a relatively short bit directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch (Shop Around the Corner, 1940), a streetwalker gets the million. She rents the finest hotel room. She climbs into the king-size, fluffed-up bed. She lies there, gets up, puts all the pillows but one in the closet and lies back down on the bed, alone. Here is Hollywood shorthand as a kind of demented poetry.

Tales of Manhattan follows a tuxedo that has been cursed by the tailor who made it, as it travels from hand to hand. The first episode, with Boyer as an actor stealing the wife (Hayworth) of Mitchell is okay. The next sequences shine with Fonda, Rogers, and Romero in a romantic mix-up; Laughton turning in a terrific performances as a musical genius who almost blows his big chance; and, especially, Robinson as a drunken bum who cleans up in order to pass at his college reunion. The Fields segment is a stand-alone classic, which it almost became. Cut from the original theatrical release, it is restored to the video version. Fields lectures a room full of high-society militant teetotalers on the evils of drinking as they get loaded on spiked "healthy" coconut milk.

If you doubt the casualness of American racism, the last episode should erase any such thoughts. The tux, its pocket full of money, is dropped on an African-American shanty town in the South. Remember, this is supposed to be a more positive portrait, featuring both Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, fine actors, playing lazy Negro caricatures. Robeson gets to sing, and there is no denying that power, but the stereotypical story triumphs. -- Louis Black

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