The Haunting

The Haunting is currently available on Amazon Prime.

The Haunting (1963)

“In an old New England house believed to be haunted, an ESP researcher enlists the help of two mediums in the hopes they can learn more about the house’s evil reputation.”

“An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”

The Haunting is based on the Shirley Jackson story, The Haunting of Hill House. Robert Wise owed MGM one more film (contracts were all the rage then), read a synopsis of Jackson’s novel in Time, and acquired the rights. He had Nelson Gidding (The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenburg) do the screenplay adaptation.

Robert Wise has a stark shot of the house and an ominous voiceover narration start the film as though this were a ghost story told around a campfire. The opening shot of the house contrasted sharply against the sky was made with infrared film.

Wise quickly kills off the two wives of Mr. Crain in stylish fashion. He then ages child Abigail from 6 to 80 in her bed in a dissolve while the narration continues and that is just in the first five minutes.

Wise’s direction and Davis Boulton’s cinematography are superb. There are wonderful effects with different lenses, skewed angles and types of film. All of the deaths are elegantly filmed.

The house itself is the main character in the film. I loved the spiral staircase and vintage mirrors. You could spend the entire movie just watching all the wonderful furniture. It is crowded pell-mell into every nook and cranny – even the doorknobs are fascinating. There is even a rope carried on a silver platter. Even the garden has more statuary than plants.

Julie Harris is sublime as the psychologically damaged Nell. Her portrayal is very complex – part victim, part guilty soul, part protagonist – trying to find the bravery to break out of her shell. Claire Bloom is wonderful as well as the playful Theodora. I really liked that while it was clear that Theo was interested in Nell, it was not given a negative spin – except in Nell’s rather repressed character.

The movie belongs to the ladies and the house but the group of investigators is rounded out by Richard Johnson as Dr. Markaway and Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sanderson. That and the rather unwelcoming caretakers, Valentine Dyall as Mr. Dudley and Rosalie Crutchley as Mrs. Dudley.

The Haunting is one of the best ghost movies ever – skillfully combining psychology with the paranormal. The Haunting is in black and white in spite of the obvious big budget – picture quality is excellent. It is Martin Scorsese’s favorite horror movie.

p.s. Should you dare, you can stay at Hill House – the exterior shots were taken at what is now the Ettington Park Hotel.

People Watch: Look for a young Lois Maxwell as Grace Markway. She had played Miss Moneypenny in Dr. No (1962) the previous year and would go on to play the role in every official Bond film through A View to a Kill (1985).

Remake-itis: In 1999, The Haunting was remade in name only.

Django Unchained – Wife vs. Hubby

My wife and I went to see Django Unchained yesterday. This is part of an exchange deal where I take her to see Les Miserables on our next date.

My wife’s take on Django:

“This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent.  Long, long-winded, poorly paced.  I went in knowing that it would be enormously offensive (it wasn’t nearly as offensive or difficult to watch at Killing Them Softly) and was surprised to find that it was instead mostly just … dull.  Any editor with sense could have cut at least an hour from this film and made it better.  Instead we have long, lingering shots of plantations, mountains, guns, snowmen, and more that don’t propel the story forward in anyway.  And then, two thirds of the way through the movie, it goes from buddy-flick (two wacky bounty hunters on the road to fame and fortune) to sadistic revenge flick (they enslaved him, and took his woman, now they’ll pay) without much transition.  And finally – this is the very first Tarantino flick I’ve ever watched and not thought I MUST GO BUY THE SOUNDTRACK RIGHT NOW.  There wasn’t a single song in this one that worked for the film (or for me).

So very disappointed.  I hope next week’s viewing of Les Mis is more satisfying.  If only I can keep people from spoiling it (further) for me between now and then…”

My take: Were we even watching the same film? Django was an utter delight. Tarantino has an amazing talent for mashing up and updating genres. To borrow from Kellogg, his dialogue snaps, crackles and pops. The violence was done in an amusingly over-the-top spaghetti western style and the cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero, was a hoot.

The acting ranged from good to amazing. Jaime Foxx carried the film quite well, channeling the quiet reserve of an early Eastwood. Christoph Waltz was fantastic as the bounty hunter as were Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Less good but still a lot of fun were Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, and Don Johnson. In addition to Franco Nero, other cameos include Quentin Tarantino, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, James Remar, James Russo, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and Robert Carradine.

Having extolled Django’s virtues (and there are many delights to be had here), I have to agree with my wife on a few points. The music appears to have been haphazardly chosen. There wasn’t a single spot on tune. Can you hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without imagining the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs? All of the songs in Pulp Fiction make me think of their individual scenes yet none of Django’s songs made an impression.

The editing is clearly the sore point. Django runs over two and a half hours. Sally Menke, who expertly edited all of Tarantino’s films passed away in 2010. Sally was nominated for Academy Awards for Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds (losing to Forrest Gump and The Hurt Locker, sheesh). That loss is clearly felt here as almost every scene ran on too long. I love an epic but Django desperately needs to lose about an hour of running time. Some of the dialogue becomes repetitious and establishing shots linger past their expiration date.

Tone is all over the map. The first two-thirds of the film turn Django from a slave into a bounty hunter and then the movie screeches to a halt as we reach Candyland, the plantation DiCaprio reigns over. None of the women make a strong impression – not that the actresses aren’t good, the roles are simply underwritten.

Django is weak Tarantino but weak Tarantino is better than most filmmakers on their best day. It is a lot of fun but it could have been a lot better.

 

Drive

Nicholas Winding-Refn’s Drive just became available on instant Netflix.

Drive (2011) – Rated R

“A Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver is lured from his isolated life by a lovely neighbor and her young son. His newfound peace is shattered, however, when her violent husband is released from prison.”

“My hands are a little dirty.” – “So are mine.”

I really hated Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. The production values were good but the script and direction veered from awful to pretentiously awful. I was not really looking forward to watching Drive.

Refn’s Drive turned out to be a nice little B-movie raised to the level of not-quite-high art by the director. The style is different from but akin to that of Michael Mann. The visuals are slick and cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel is impressive. Los Angeles by night is absolutely gorgeous.

Sound design on the film is equally impressive and achieves a great balance between dialogue, music and sound effects. Drive was nominated for a Best Achievement in Sound Editing Oscar but lost out to Hugo.

The classic fable of The Scorpion and The Frog is woven throughout the film in a series of nice artistic touches. This ranges from the general theme and plot to visual touches such as Driver (Ryan Gosling’s character is never given a name) wearing a scorpion jacket through much of the film (i.e. carrying the scorpion on his back).

Acting is good but not great. Refn chooses to eschew dialogue in favor of meaningful glances. He did this to extreme in Valhalla Rising. Here it is toned down and less risible. Ryan Gosling is often just there to look cool. He gives his best Steve McQueen impression but comes across as something of a cipher – not really surprising given that his character doesn’t have a name.

Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston put in nice performances. Sadly Christina Hendricks, fabulous in Mad Men, is largely wasted here in a very minor role. The surprise here is Albert Brooks in the first serious role I’ve seen him in. I would never have thought of him exuding menace but he nails his role.

Drive also reminded me of The Godfather (no Drive is not a classic). The violence was brutal but often came out of left field and was almost always startling. This is how violence should be handled in action movies. Several of the violent sequences stayed with me long after the movie ended and one in particular is absolutely chilling (no spoilers – it’s the one that takes place in the garage). Reportedly the head-stomping scene had to be cut many times to get Drive an ‘R’ rating.

Drive is definitely a matter of style over substance. If you can appreciate that style, this film is very enjoyable and highly recommended.

People Watch: Look for veteran character actor Russ Tamblyn as Doc. Russ is best known for his role as Riff in West Side Story but has been in everything from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gideon) to Twin Peaks (Dr. Jacoby)