Comparing "The Haunting" 1963 and 1999: The Superior and the Inferior

There’s that old term that sometimes less is more. Filmmakers subscribe to that theory–well some filmmakers, I mean Michael Bay never met a special effect he didn’t like, and of course there’s porn, but back in the golden age, less was more. With the flick of an eyebrow Greta Garbo made men swoon, with the revealing seductive smile and the flash of a shoulder Rita Hayworth made men literally shiver in their seats. Back then, less was more, and more times than none, back in the golden age of film, many filmmakers thought that less was more. I’m for that theory that sometimes our imagination can do more than an actual picture can do, because nothing can match our own sick imaginations. These days in horror films it’s hard to find a film that subscribes to that theory, let alone be able to exercise it and pull it off.

Master Alfred Hitchcock believed this theory, and for us it still works. Hitchcock believed that many times what you didn’t show the audience was more terrifying than what you did. As with “The Haunting”, both films stand as a testament to that theory that many times less is indeed more. In 1963 director Robert Wise directed the adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s horror novel “The Haunting of Hill House”, and turned it in to one of the most underrated unnoticed classic horror films of all time that continues to remain creepy. In 1999, director Jan DeBont directed a remake of the novel, and, well—it’s bad. really bad. With DeBont’s movie, there is nothing but a spectacle that provides little scares with monsters and demons coming back and forth and an epic battle in the end with a great looking but hardly scary CGI ghost, but 1963’s “The Haunting” was able to accomplish so much more with old factory devices.

With Wise’s black and white stark presentation that made his film look like a nightmare, he was able to pull off so much with creaky floors, slamming doors, and a beast that remained unseen even after the climax. Wise relies on the audiences imaginations to do the work for him. Constantly Eleanor (Julie Harris) can hear above her room, the pounding and thumping of a monstrous beast above stomping back and forth, from within her room she can hear something looking for her, the breathing and sniffing as she gazes in horror, and Wise pulls off so much by not showing us. What made the difference between these two movies, are the sheer brilliant performances.

While the remake boasted the respective incomparable talents of Liam Neeson, Lilli Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Owen Wilson, what they failed to do was convince us that they were truly horrified. But with the version from 1963 with the cast of Russ Tamblyn, Julie Harris, the beautiful Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson, they convinced us that within the Hill house, lay something truly menacing. In one utterly beautiful scene, the entire cast watches in a room as they gaze at the main door while the monster thumps and pounds outside, and they gaze in gaping wide-eyed fright as the unseen beast waits outside their door, and with a truly brilliant sequence, bends the door. With simple devices and a cast who actually convinced us there was something horrific going on, we were able to experience a truly creepy film that show audiences that our own imaginations can do tricks that Hollywood can’t muster up.

Though De Bont’s remake boasts some amazing set pieces, beautiful visuals, and a house that is utterly gorgeous, he fails to give us what we really want: horror. Not to mention a truly logical coherent story that kept the movie from being entertaining. Though the performances in both films are great, the cast from the original film truly manages to convince us of the torture they’re experiencing. Wilson for all he’s worth does a good job in the place of Tamblyn, but Tamblyn comes out on top in the end as funnier. Take for example the scene in the room where the beast attempts to get in. Tamblyn’s character boasts throughout the film that he’s going to fix the mansion and sell it, later, in the room while the beast attempts to get in, Tamblyn turns to Johnson’s character with a deadpan expression and declares “I’ll sell you the house for cheap, doc.”

As with the lesbian themes presented by Jackson, Wise is able to accomplish that with the inclusion of that which was bold in the time the film was released. With the character of Theo, Claire Bloom pulls off much more sexual allure than Zeta Jones does. In this version, Wise hints at the lesbian pining’s between these two women, while DeBont simply flaunted the fact and failed to draw anything edgy from either of them. Theo, in the original poses more of a convincing antithesis to Eleanor alternating from bitter and mean to caring and flirtatious as the movie goes on, and though Zeta Jones does have sexual appeal, she fails to live up to Bloom.

Richard Johnson is much of a convincing doctor in the original than Liam Neeson who was just coming off “Episode One” at the time. Neeson is great as the skeptical doctor, but here the character of Dr. John Markway instantly believes in the house’s power and is convinced that the evil is dormant. As for the pivotal character of Eleanor, Julie Harris is utterly engrossing as the gentle, temperamental, and sometimes whiny Eleanor who seeks happiness desperately, but must fight off her personal demons which the house manifests for its own advantage.

While Lilli Taylor does give an effective performance, she fails to truly look horrified by the goings on in the mansion and really doesn’t involve the audience in to what is happening to her. What De Bont’s remake failed in (among everything else) was letting us inside Eleanor’s head. In the original, we were given constant peeks in to Eleanor’s mind as she thought to herself and experienced the houses demons. Meanwhile in terms of film quality, the 1999 remake just doesn’t hold a candle to the original. While the sets are utterly beautiful in the remake, it proves that big budget doesn’t always mean quality, as we fail to find anything resembling fright because many times the makers are so obsessed with showing us CGI monsters, they don’t focus on the atmosphere.

All the while, “The Haunting” 1999 goes off with a bang while Wise’ original goes off with a cold frightening whisper, and many times a whisper is much more effective than a bang.  The 1999 remake of the original poses somewhat of an antithesis as well because while the 1963 original is creepy, and beautifully acted, with great performances and some one of a kind direction from Wise, the remake is ultimately a pretty awful film in spite of the cast and special effects with a bland story, plot holes, and anything resembling a scare. If you want to see a real ghost film, go with Robert Wise’ masterpiece.