What you are about to read has been made possible by the brilliant Shirley Jackson, the late author that gifted the world with her ingenious novel The Haunting of Hill House back in 1953. This novel revolutionized the ghost/haunted house genre and influenced authors such as Stephen King. Without The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining wouldn’t exist. Very soon, Netflix will be airing a miniseries that bares the same title. It is to be a “modern reimagining” of the classic, according to Deadline.com. Those two words scare me. We have already had a modern reimagining back in 1999 with the film The Haunting . It didn’t go over so well. To be clear, this 1999 film was not an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. Rather, it is a remake of a 1963 film by the same name. The Haunting of 1963 is an adaptation of the novel and this film is critically praised.
Here’s how the films score via two review sites:
The Haunting – 1999 / IMDb.com =4.9/10 stars
The Haunting – 1963 / IMDb.com = 7.6/10 stars
The Haunting – 1999 / rottentomatoes = Critics Score: 16% Audience Score 28%
The Haunting – 1963 –rottentomatoes = Critics Score: 87% Audience Score 82%
I first saw The Haunting (1963) when I was around six-years-old. I didn’t know what was going on with the story, but I loved watching characters react to the phantom sound – a loud banging on the walls. Scary stuff. I saw it again in my twenties and I wasn’t impressed. What did I know, I was a culturally illiterate bar-hopper in those days. I saw it again several times after I “matured” (I reek of this maturity stuff. I’ve given up farting!) and after each viewing it only got better. I love this film.
I failed at my first attempt to see The Haunting 1999. Believe it or not, the theater was sold out. Eventually I did see it and I thought it was “okay-ish.” I mean, it looked good on the big screen. So many cool special effects! I have come to learn that special effects, a common feature of a big budget movie, can ironically “cheapen” a story.
Over the years, I had forgotten the details of the 1999 film. It didn’t have a lasting impression on me. However, that BOOM BOOM BOOM on the walls from the 1963 film stayed with me since childhood. Even during my close-minded twenties, the film was still percolating within me, though I would not have admitted it.
In this article, I aim to compare and contrast the 1963 and 1999 versions of The Haunting. By doing so, I am fulfilling one third of a promise. In my preceding blog post I stated that I would compare three classic haunted house films to their respective remakes. I start down the road of promise fulfillment with The Haunting. I will continue the journey with The House on Haunted Hill in an upcoming article and then wind down with 13 Ghosts. But first things first – The Haunting!
As evidenced in the review sites in the chart above, the popular consensus is that the classic film is the superior of the two. The modern film has been criticized for its heavy reliance on CGI effects used to the detriment of the story. Also, the 1963 film is closer to the book. The 1999 film strays in odd directions to the displeasure of the fans of Shirley Jackson. With all this I agree. But let me elaborate on this further. Details matter! Let’s get to those details!
Beware – There will be spoilers!!!
The Similarities Between the Films
Here is a plot summary that can be applied to both films.
A scientific investigator invites a team of three to stay at Hill House as part of a study. The team consists of Eleanor Lance, Theodora, Luke Sanderson and the investigator who heads the study. Hill House is a haunted house.
Eleanor is a young woman who has led a secluded life. Most of her adult life has been dedicated to taking care of her invalid mother. She very much welcomes the invitation to stay at Hill House, for she is anxious to start a new life; a new adventure. She has self-doubts and is unsure of her place in the world. Theodora, who goes by “Theo”, is assertive, and somewhat brash. Hill House is an excessively large mansion with an abundance of “Haunted House Décor”: Creepy statues, staring portraits, winding staircases, large fireplaces. The garden has some very life-like statues. There is a rickety spiral staircase made of metal; very unsafe for climbing.
On the grounds of the Hill House property, there is a stretch of road that leads from the house to the main street. The caretaker of Hill House, Mr. Dudley, mans the front gate. He is quite cantankerous and he initially refuses to let Eleanor in, even though she is expected. Mrs. Dudley is equally unwelcoming. She takes care of the inside of the house. She cooks the meals but makes it clear that she will never stay after dark. She and her husband will go home, in town, which is miles away. The house guests will be alone, at night, in the dark, and will not be able to call anyone for help.
At some point in the movie(s), viewers learn a bit about the backstory of Hill House. It was once owned by one Hugh Crane. The story of Crane’s family is one of tragedy, involving deaths and suicides that take place inside the house. The story also consists of sad circumstances related to children.
Now, here be some of the stuff of “the haunting”
- Eleanor and Theo are awakened in the middle of the night to loud noises; it sounds as if something is banging against the walls
- Graffiti mysteriously appears on the walls. The words on the wall read “Welcome Home, Eleanor,” or, something to that effect. Who is to blame for this? The guests accuse each other. Even Eleanor is accused of writing the message, perhaps as a way to attract attention.
- Eleanor is the one that is most susceptible to “the haunting”. The house seems to take possession of her. At one point, she wanders off, as if in a trance, and climbs the rickety staircase. During her climb, the staircase becomes unhinged and other guests have to risk their lives to help Eleanor down.
I’m sure there are other similarities, but I believe I have highlighted the main ones. Let’s get to the differences – do some slicing and dicing. How fun!
The Differences Between the Films
Black and White Vs. Color
The original film is shot in black and white. The modern film is done in color. Does this make a difference? A huge one, which will be explained at the end of the next section.
The Setting – Hill House Itself
The original film does a very nice job of setting the scene and cinematically propping up the creepy atmosphere inside the haunted house with careful details. From the designs on the walls to the angles of the doors, this fictional, if not improbable house seems real, almost as if one could reach into the screen and feel the grooved texture of the bedroom walls.
The remake, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to portray a house that could only exist in a fantasy world. It’s as if the makers of this film examined the intensity of style of the house in the original film and magnified it by a thousand. The doors that separate rooms are like barricades built to withhold a battering ram. They are, perhaps, sixty-seventy feet tall and thick as a fortress wall. And yet, the house guests push them open with the same ease as a movie cowboy passing through the swinging doors of the Old West saloons. The Hill House of the original film features very large and ornate fireplaces.The modern Hill House has a fireplace so huge that it is like a room in and of itself. Bigger is better? Ah…no.
Both films feature similar rooms, such as Eleanor’s large bedroom and the beautiful garden. But the 1999 film it isn’t satisfied with the rooms the 1963 film had to offer. It felt the need to add rooms and attractions ,such as a flooded library, where books sprawled on the ground are used like stepping stones to cross a river (this makes no sense) and a spinning room with mirrors and carnival music, I guess intending to mimic a giant carousel (there are no horses!).
All in all, the filmmakers decided to produce a house that would be an awesome attraction at Disney World, but in the end their creation fails to provide a genuinely scary atmosphere. It is too grand, too cartoonish; the overall backdrop is far too distracting. It is also too colorful, making a fan of the classic film yearn for the simple yet very effective style of the black and white photography. With shadows and gloomy grays, the Hill House of the original film represents the beloved gothic-style haunted house. Alas, no so with the modern. Instead we get some kind of indoor amusement park.
Initial premise/Story Setup
While the most general premise remains the same in both films (four people, two men and two women stay at a haunted house as part of a scientific study), the details are significantly different. In the original film, Dr. Markway is an anthropologist/parapsychologist determined to prove that supernatural phenomena is real. To him, it is an unexplored realm of science, and is only scary because it deals with the unknown. Just as early civilizations were fearful of the possibility that the world could be round, people in the modern day and age are scared to think about the existence of ghosts.
On a mission to collect evidence of paranormal activity, he invites two women to stay with him at a house that is supposedly haunted. Yes folks, the house is Hill House. The women are chosen on account of their past and present experiences with the paranormal. Theo has ESP and Eleanor had been subjected to poltergeist activity when she was a small girl. Supposedly, a haunted house is more apt to display ghostly manifestations when it is inhabited by people with a natural affinity toward the paranormal.
Luke Sanderson is the nephew of the heiress to Hill House. The heiress is an older lady who lives offsite. She insists that Luke be there while the investigation is underway to protect the interests of the family property. Luke will inherit the house when his aunt passes.
The modern film convolutes this whole setup. Dr. Marrow (his name has changed) is a scientist that studies fear. On a false premise, he invites three people to participate in a study that he claims is about insomnia. Eleanor, Theo, and Luke show up at Hill House to take part in the study (Luke is a participant in this scenario , not an heir to the house). Dr. Marrow arrives, lies to them some more about “insomnia”, and spreads a rumor that a woman killed herself in this house. He wants to test his subjects reaction to fear and hopes they will frighten themselves with their imaginations. Hill House is chosen for the site of his experiment on account of its overall creepy environment and arcane architecture. Everything backfires when the house turns out to be truly haunted.
Why did the screenwriters of this modern film make this change ? I have no idea. Perhaps just to set it apart from the original story. To me, this modern twist makes the story unnecessarily complicated and strips away much of the mystery.
As mentioned, Luke Sanderson is an experiment participant in the modern film and not a relative interested in protecting the interests of Hill House. Truth be told, I don’t like the way either film portrays this character. Played by Russ Tamblyn in the first film, Luke is a self-serving cad. However, his “caddish” ways are overdone. With every single piece of furniture or decor, he vows to one day use it for some outlandish purpose, like turning the library into a nightclub and having chorus girls dance down the wobbly staircase. While he is a scoundrel in the book, he is at least a more believable one, more human. However, I will take the 1963 Luke Sanderson over the 1999 Luke played by Owen Wilson. This actor just annoys the hell out of me. He spends most of the film telling bad jokes and getting on the nerves of the women. He is terribly miscast.
Catherine Zeta Jones as Theo seems like it might be a good choice, but she does not do to well either. Claire Bloom plays Theo in the 1963 film and she is more believable as the bohemian, perhaps closet lesbian. Jones often seems as if she is just reciting lines and forcing emotion.
I enjoyed Richard Johnson’s performance as Dr Markway more than Liam
Neeson’s role as Dr. Marrow. Johnson as Markway seems more realistically passionate about the subject of his study. Maybe this is because the script allows him to be up front about his research and he shares his ideas with his study participants. Liam is a great actor, so perhaps it is the overall writing that mars his performance. He is at times interesting to watch in this film. But, well, Richard Johnson does it better.
Here in this section, I should mention that in the 1999 film, Dr. Marrow has two assistants. They are there at Hill House in the beginning. One assistant hurts her eye, the other assistant puts her in a car to take her to the hospital , and then there are none. No assistants. No more screen time. Two totally useless characters that don’t contribute to the story in any way.
Finally, there is Eleanor, my sweet sweet Eleanor! This modern film treats you so poorly. It does so by trying to give you strength in the wrong places. You are a very vulnerable person and I love you just the way you are. When your character becomes confident and self assumed, I weep. Seriously though, The Eleanor of the book and the original film is neurotic, emotional, delusional, needy, and yet she is adventurous and does a good job at standing up for herself. In the original film, Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance) is superb at taking all these traits and bringing them to life on the screen. Alas, Lili Taylor (Eleanor in the 1999 film) does not do so well with this. One second she is vulnerable and the next moment she is self-assured and very centered. Taylor seems confused as to how to play this role. Again, much of this confusion should be blamed on the story. In this updated version of the story, Eleanor becomes the hero, the solver of mysteries, the only one that can figure out what Hill House is all about. This is blasphemy! No one should figure out the mysteries of Hill House. It cheapens the story and steals away from the allure of the house. The Eleanor of both the book and the original film slowly allows Hill House to possess her. Much of this possession is psychological. There is very little psychological horror in the modern film. It is painfully literal at all times.
Okay, are you ready to get into the meat and guts of the haunting? Of course you are! Let’s see how each film is substantially different in this regards.
The Nature of the Haunting
The original film deals with an arcane house with a lurid history. Hill House had preyed on past inhabitants, killed some, drove others mad. The past is often a good predictor of present and future occurrences, and this theory holds true in this film. The film makes use of the famous opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House. Among the lines are the words
“Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more.” Hill House has endured as a haunted house for a long time and it will continue on this way throughout the years to come. Why is Hill House haunted? This question remains a mystery, appropriately so. Why are certain people such as Eleanor Lance so attached to Hill House and why is the house mutually attracted to her? Again, the answers are reassuringly vague and perhaps only available to those that can mine the fields of the subconscious that connects the house to the woman. This postulate assumes that Hill House has a conscious. And I do believe that it does.
The haunting manifests in subtle and not so subtle ways. The banging on the walls, the writing on the walls are pretty obvious. But it’s Hill House’s hypnotizing effects on Eleanor that point to its true power – the way it causes such an otherwise frightened woman to feel at home in its confines, causing her to dance before one of its statues, to climb to its highest peak, risking her life on a rickety staircase while doing so. This interplay between house and human sets a mysterious tone and makes for some serious haunting.
The modern film takes a different approach. It begins with an incomplete backstory that unfolds as the film progresses. What is revealed is the key to “solving the haunting”. Eleanor figures it all out and rids the house of its evil while freeing many trapped spirits in the process; freeing the spirits of dear sweet, innocent children!
In the original story, Hugh Crane attempts to bring his wife to Hill House. She never sees the house.. Her carriage overturns on the road to the house. He remarries, but his second wife dies inside the house with a tumble down the stairs. Hugh is a traveler and he dies abroad, leaving behind a child daughter, Abigail, to be raised be servants in Hill House. The child is sheltered and remains in the house , unmarried, until she is an invalid old lady, still using the nursery she was raised in as her bedroom. One night, Abigail calls out to her caretaker, but this companion is busy entertaining a gentleman. Neglected, Abigail dies and soon after, the companion hangs herself in the library. All this does not necessarily cause any future hauntings. Instead, these tragedies are pieces in a large patchwork of some kind of haunting that has been and will continue to be. In the remake, the spirit of Hugh Crane is the mastermind of all things evil at Hill House. When he was alive, he murdered his wives and kept children as worker slaves. The spirits of the children haunt the house too, and it is up to Eleanor to free them and defeat Crane. As it turns out, the good spirits of Hill House had called Eleanor, pretending to work for the professor , and invited her to take part in the study. Why Eleanor ? Because, it is revealed that she is a descendant of one of the women killed in Hill House . As Charlie Brown says, “Oh Good Grief!”
Isn’t it better for the nature of the haunting to be a mystery? Isn’t it better to imply a psychological connection to Hill House rather than to absurdly assign a link from heroine to house via a eureka moment of familial revelation? The stronger link is in the first film, and how Eleanor is like Abigail, both sheltered women from distressed families. Or how she is like the caretaker. It is revealed that Eleanor too ignored her mother’s cane-banging cry for attention, which ultimately resulted in her death. And in the end Eleanor will be like Crane’s first wife, dying on Hill House’s road. Crane’s wife was on horse and carriage arriving and Eleanor was in her car leaving. Perhaps Eleanor joins Hill House because – they are one in the same. Eleanor has “housed” very similar tragedies, so in a way she and Hill House share a similar soul. Ah, but this is just a spur of the moment theory that came to me as I was writing this paragraph. But this off-the-cuff theory illustrates the power of the original film – it stimulates wonder and allows for many interpretations. The latter film has not this power. Nothing is left to the imagination. As an example, the modern film has to show on screen ghosts, displaying the latest in CGI technology (latest for 1999 anyway). All the ghosts are literal, spirits of the dead. Boring! The 1963 provides better scares with implications. We see the fright on the actors faces. No need for this in the 1999 film. Instead viewers see the subject of the fright (the CGI ghosts), allowing the actors to just look dumb.
Is there anything good about the 1999 film?
The modern film is visually appealing. For me the visuals steal from the story, but if you are one of those that don’t give a rat’s ass about story or characters and just want a haunted house film where you can sit back and say, “Oh man, that ghost looks cool!”, then you might enjoy this movie. In particular, there is a scene where ghosts evolve from a white curtain that blows in the wind. I enjoyed this CGI in action. I admit, I sat back and said, “Oh man, those ghosts look cool!”. Also there are children’s faces carved into a piece of wood work. Their facial expressions change and the direction they stare in changes as well. Some of the special effects are well done and very creepy.
I remember watching film critic Roger Ebert review The Haunting 1999. He went through a list of criticisms to finally pivot and mildly recommend the film. His soft recommendation was on account of the entire haunted house atmosphere. He felt the film succeeded in this way. At the time I agreed with him. I don’t anymore.
The modern film presents a visually creative haunted house , I’ll give it that. And I just love those ghosts that materialize from the curtain. But these things are not enough for me to recommend the film as a whole. I’m sorry. I just hope the upcoming Netflix series is a far better reimagination than the The Haunting – 1999