MY FAVOURITE HORROR MOVIE: SIMEON HALLIGAN
Simeon Halligan is an English writer, director and producer best known for his survival horrors Splintered (2010) and White Settlers (2014). He is also one of the directors of the Grimmfest Horror Festival (which is imminent!) As if he wasn't busy enough, his latest feature Habit is currently in production and will be released early next year. Here, Simeon tells us about his favourite horror movie - one one of the best haunted house movies ever... The Haunting (1963)
How the hell do you pick an all time favorite horror film? It's taken me a while to decide on this and even after I rewatched THE HAUNTING recently, with this piece in mind, I wasn't sure if I was making the right choice. I figured it needed to be something that you can remember affecting you from an early age and so It was a toss up between this, ALIEN and DONT LOOK NOW. In the end I stuck with THE HAUNTING, mainly because the timing its right as I'm currently developing a new supernatural thriller called SING ME TO SLEEP which, is, in some ways, influenced by this movie.
What makes THE HAUNTING such a effective movie and why has it stuck with me all these years? Well, I guess I've always been drawn to stories that genuinely scare you. THE HAUNTING succeeds in this without really showing you anything concrete. Reading a few reviews I notice that some people feel let down by the film because it doesn't reveal the monster. Certainly not in an obvious physical form that is. Interestingly, for me thats exactly why it does work and so much better than the 1999 lacklustre remake that did exactly that, it showed too much.
The basic story is about a Parapsychologist who invites a handful of carefully selected guests to what is considered one of the most haunted houses in the US, as a kind of test. But what's really interesting about this film and why it stands head and shoulders above many similar genre pieces is that, at it's core, it's a complex character study. It's really about the people within the place and one in particular, Eleanor (Played by Julie Harris), a vulnerable, disturbed middle aged woman. It's also about the way she connects with this new environment. Like Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING, Eleanor is at once terrorised and seduced by Hill House and, at the end, becomes its resident ghost. We face the house with her, experiencing all her fears and worries, imparted often by use of an interior monologue which is actually really effective.
This also gives us an unreliable narrator which makes us question everything we think we see as we spend the night at Hill House. Are these manifestations real or just side-effects of Eleanor's sustained psychic assault on herself. And the way THE HAUNTING uses its environment is a big part of why it still manages to scare. The fear is all in the details.
The way Eleanor and we focus on the door, the twisting door knob; something is trying to get into her room. And the lingering image that, for some unconscious reason, seems to stick in my brain and send shivers up my spine even now; the weird anaglypta wall paper that may or may not reveal a spooky face within its design. Why is this scary? I'm not entirely sure. Its like some unexplained image from a re-occurring nightmare. Something you know signifies fear but you cant ever explain exactly why. And then later we see the bulging door which seems to breathe, suggesting a vast monster behind it (Of which we never see) and the rickety spiral staircase that threatens to collapse as Eleanor/we ascend it.
Robert Wise, the director said he "wanted the house to look almost alive.” and I guess it is the way he makes the house feel like its a living breathing entity that really gives the film its atmosphere. If you've ever woken up at night and found yourself petrified by what might lie in the dark at the end of your bed, then you should connect with the fear in this film.
I've read a lot about how Wise used picture and sound to its best effect to make this film so pervasive and uncomfortable but as a director its some times hard to pin point exactly how another film maker has achieved such greatness. Its that melting pot of elements that somehow comes together perfectly. And once in place, identifying each element and why it works so well as part of the whole isn't always easy. But its evident that the set design, the black and white cinematography and the editing seem to work brilliantly together in THE HAUNTING. Just maybe, though, it's the use of sound that really makes this film have the power to scare.
"If you've ever woken up and found yourself petrified by what might lie in the dark at the end of your bed, then you should connect with the fear in this film."
Wise was a skilled sound editor before he moved to picture editing and eventually direction so maybe it was that background that enabled him to conjure such an unsettling soundscape. Our first night in Hill house and we wake to hear distant pounding which increases in volume until it is right outside Eleanor's bedroom door. Somehow it's damned scary and made all the more so because the semi conscious Eleanor confuses it for her deceased mother banging on the bedroom wall. It's as if the sound is moving around the house, down the corridors searching for its victim, which of course, Eleanor thinks is her. We look at walls, doors, surfaces and hear noises that we presume are coming from beyond them. Distorted moans, laughter, crying but then we also wonder, how much of this is Eleanor creating in her mind. For her, Hell House and its inhabitants are the first people/things in her life to welcome her; to make her feel important. It's almost inevitable that she will never leave the house alive, its like she was meant to be here, one in a long line of characters irrevocably intwined within the very structure of the place.
Somehow your time spent in Hell House with Eleanor and the others makes you feel as if you really have visited the place. The feeling of being watched, unexplained sounds, the patterns in the wallpaper, etc, nearly everything we see and hear could be explained away by a rational mind but equally they are all experiences we can identify with from early childhood fears. Ultimately the film choses not to show physical apparitions, it uses the craft of film making to imply, to suggest, to make you feel uneasy and in doing so, becomes something even the most sceptical viewer can find fear in.
What THE HAUNTING shows so eloquently is that the secret to supernatural storytelling is the power of suggestion. I guess THE HAUNTING could be seen as a precursor to the current crop of successful frighteners, such as THE CONJURING, which I think owes a lot to this movie. If you've never seen the original and best haunted house movie, go check it out, its a great piece of cinema.