Way back when I was in high school I played Dr. Montague, an anthropologist and paranormal investigator, in a school play adapted by the prolific F. Andrew Leslie from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. (Even then, I always played the old guy parts.) Viewing this movie for the first time recently, I briefly wondered why I hadn’t made a point of watching it before doing the play, so as to see how professional actors handled it. Then I remembered that back then we didn’t have video rental places.
In the film Dr. Montague is called Dr. Markway, a change from the original novel I haven’t seen explained but probably has to do with Britain’s famously strict libel laws. (If there was a real person named Dr. John Montague, the studio’s legal department would probably have insisted on changing the name.) There are a number of other differences from the novel as well—Markway is younger than Montague, for example, and also comes across as more heroic—but by all accounts this film is more faithful to the original than the widely-panned 1999 remake.
Dr. Markway (the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard Johnson) hopes Hill House will help him prove the existence of psychic phenomena. He’s downright cheerful describing the shocking tragedies in its history. To encourage eldritch forces to manifest themselves he’s invited six people with paranormal connections to join him in the place. Only two of them show up, the other four having read up on the place first and realized what they’d be getting into.
The two who do turn up are Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom). Eleanor is a troubled, lonely woman whose unhappy adult life had been spent caring for a demanding ailing mother, only recently deceased. Theodora is a beautiful psychic and incidentally a lesbian. (They don’t come right out and say that, but it’s pretty obvious.)
Bloom is attracted to Harris, but Harris is attracted to Dr. Markway, who’s appealingly intelligent, kind, witty, and interested in what she has to say.
The other guest is Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a young man who expects to inherit the house and is on hand at his aunt’s insistence in part to preserve propriety by not having Dr. Markway living in the place alone with two single women. I’m not sure how adding a single man to the mix makes it any more proper, but it works out OK, since neither of the women seems interested in him, though he indicates he likes both and would be OK with a female ghost, come to that.
The place is cared for during daylight hours by a married couple who make a point of living miles away and never coming anywhere near it after dark. The wife is downright creepy and seems to really enjoy telling Eleanor and Theo that no one will heed their cries for help. Later Lois Maxwell, the original Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series, shows up and causes some disruptions. Both her character and her role in the plot are very different from the novel.
There’s no on-screen violence or gore and very little in the way of special effects, but the film manages to be quite frightening. It’s been said that its genre is terror rather than horror, which I think is an accurate and useful distinction. In some ways the style seems dated, but the movie remains very watchable and effective and was a personal favorite of its director, Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and plenty of others, including Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which was scary in its own way.) The writer was Nelson Gidding, who said that he asked Shirley Jackson if the story was supposed to be taking place entirely in Eleanor’s mind. Jackson told him no, but said it was a good idea.
Both the novel and this film have been widely praised by critics, which I mention in part because my own positive reaction is perhaps colored by fond high school memories of playing Dr. Montague on stage, as I mentioned a few paragraphs back. A web search assures me that our production wasn’t unique in provoking unintended laughter from the audience, in our case largely because of technical problems, such as sets that at times seemed dangerously close to collapsing under the blows of unseen forces seemingly equipped with ectoplasmic sledgehammers.
In one scene set during the wee hours, the troubled Eleanor is mysteriously drawn to a locked door, which swings open as she approaches and closes after she passes through. There’s a cry, and the rest of the cast rush onto the stage through the main doorway, all dressed in their night clothes. Unfortunately, not everyone was well positioned backstage in preparation for this, and when the mysterious door opened to admit Eleanor, the audience could see a surprised-looking young fellow standing in his pajamas on the other side.
There’s one scene I remember in particular. As Professor Montague I had just delivered one of my occasional lectures on paranormal phenomena, and what’s supposed to follow is a horrific pounding on the upstage center door. Only there wasn’t any, and without it the play was dead in the water.
Now, I rather prided myself in being able to ad lib something to cover another actor’s forgotten line or some other problem. Even better, my old friend Bryan Jones, whom I’d known since elementary school, was on stage as well (playing Luke), and if anything he could extemporize better than I could.
So, confident we could deal with this little glitch, I suddenly cocked my head listening, looked concerned, and said in an urgent stage whisper, “Did you hear that?” confident that Jones would quickly pick up on this and say something like, “Yes! It sounded like it came from the far end of the hall,” and between us we could work out how to get the train back on the rails.
Only what he actually did was to lean back, cross his legs, and cheerfully say, “You know, I didn’t hear a damn thing.”
I came within a nanobunny of walking down to the footlights -- we actually had footlights -- looking out at the audience, and saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me explain to you what this son of a bitch has just done.”
Instead, I glowered at him and said, “Well I did. Come here!” and I stomped up to the door and put my ear against it. Jones sauntered after and pretended to listen as well. “What the hell are you doing?” I whispered without moving my lips.
“This thing is a fiasco anyway,” he whispered back.
“So you want to prolong it?”
“Good point.” He straightened up and said out loud, “Well, Professor, I still don’t hear anything, but I’ll go investigate. Back in two shakes.”
I returned to my seat and exchanged some concerned looks with the remainder of the cast, who looked genuinely worried. In fact, the quality of acting overall was quite high. When in an earlier scene our Eleanor and Theodora were clinging to each other as ghostly blows seemed about to knock big pieces of the set down on their heads, one could have sworn their terror was absolutely real.
In short order Jones was back, saying, “Well, Professor, I don’t know what you heard, but I didn’t see--” at which point it sounded like the door was being pounded with boulders. (During his sortie behind the scenes he’d located the sound effects crew and made threats.)
Enough with the memories. Here's a trailer for the film: