Yesterday evening (May the 4th), TCM aired a double bill of horror films, The Haunting (1963) and Ghost Ship (2002). While this post isn’t an in-depth look at either film I wanted to use the experience of watching both films, one after the other, to illustrate why I don’t watch many modern horror films, and therefore why Exploitica concentrates on older films.
The Haunting is a film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which tells the tale of a group of paranormal investigators and their stay in Hill House, a sprawling mansion. Jackson uses the mounting tension between the characters and the sense of impending doom mingled with the emotional breakdown of the main character Eleanor Vance. The novel is a masterpiece of suggestion, and the ending is deliberately vague, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination as to whether Eleanor was actually plagued by spirits or simply a sensitive and emotionally disturbed young woman.
While the widely panned 1999 version of The Haunting went for an all out horror film with plenty of CGI ghosts, the 1963 film is more or less faithful to Jackson’s novel. The horror is implied and very little happens for the first hour or so, yet the sense that something terrible is going to happen slowly builds. The play of light and shadows mingled with the sound effects which vary from tiny tinkling bells to wave-like crashes creates the emotional charge needed to set the nerves on edge and add to the growing unease.
Richard Johnson plays Dr. John Markway, a paranormal investigator looking for evidence of supernatural activity. He contacts a number of people who have supernatural experiences and invites them to spend the summer at splendidly gothic Hill House (Ettington Hall which is now the Ettington Park Hotel). The only two to accept the invitations are Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris) , a shy and sensitive young woman who lives with and cares for her elderly and demanding mother, and Theo (Claire Bloom), an artist and possibly lesbian, bohemian. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the heir to Hill House, and resident sceptic. As with any classic haunted house, creepy things come out of the woodwork at night, but instead of gibbering demons or headless ghouls the terror is treated with a light but eerie touch, such as bending walls and booming noises.
Performances are solid, Bloom excellent as the cool and vaguely predatory Theo, though Harris seems on the verge of hysteria almost from the outset, as opposed to the creeping psychosis that slowly dawns on Eleanor (her performance actually reminded me a little of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, in that he already seems crazy before he even gets to the Overlook). As with the novel we are left to wonder whether the ghosts are real or not, neatly playing on both the fear of the supernatural and the fear of insanity.
By contrast, more happens in the first ten minutes of Ghost Ship than in the the entire 112 minute running time of The Haunting, though this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The story is fairly simple. An ocean salvage team attempt to recover anything of value from a luxury liner that went missing in 1962 and discover the original inhabitants are still there, in spirit anyway. Cue lashings of the red stuff, a ‘rocking’ soundtrack, some boobs and a sub-plot involving a demonic soul-stealer. Most of the cast spend their time either shouting to be heard over the sound of things exploding or whispering, meaning just as soon as you get the volume loud enough to hear the dialogue the ‘rocking’ soundtrack kicks in, rendering you deaf while you grope for the remote control.
Despite being a ghost film the ghouls in Ghost Ship seem to enjoy a fairly hands-on approach to dispatching the crew rather than playing on their, and our, fears. The entire movie comes across as rather dull, in spite of the notorious massacre-by-wire scene in the opening few minutes, and while the cast put in energetic performances one feels it’s with a ‘let’s just get this over with’ kind of gusto.
Ok, Ghost Ship is just one of many horror films released post 2000, but it’s also fairly typical of its type. A film that uses cheap shocks and gore rather than creeping terror (and for those who think I’m completely adverse to gore read my review of Zombie Flesh Eaters), inept mixing in regards to sound, CGI effects (though it’s not only the horror industry who’ve resorted to almost entirely computer generated graphics), and seemed to be directed by someone more suited to making music videos. Mostly, and again this could be a gripe against most any genre of film that’s saturated with commercial directors and writers looking to make a quick buck, these films don’t convey any sense that the people who make the films had any love for them, and that’s really horrific.