Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Tao of Michael Myers? Or The Hidden "Shapes" of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

I have written about John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) on several occasions. In The Films of John Carpenter (2000); in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and here, on this blog, over the last four-and-a-half years.

And yet despite this fact, I am drawn to revisit the film again and again, across the years, to further detect new and intriguing aspects of the masterpiece. This is a fact which differentiates it from Rob Zombie's 2007 ill-advised remake, and some of the piss-poor, latter-day sequels.

So the question becomes: what is it, precisely, about John Carpenter's Halloween that stands up to --- and actually encourages -- continued, intense scrutiny?

And hell, it isn't just my scrutiny either, it's the scrutiny of other scholars, authors, bloggers, list-makers and admirers the globe around. Over thirty years after the film's release, Halloween's reputation only continues to grow.

But the answer to the question about the Tao of Halloween, The Tao of Michael Myers, is deceptively simple, and it very much concerns my favorite cinematic conceit: visual form echoing narrative content.


Specifically, as percipients of Halloween, we gaze intently at that blank, white, featureless mask of "The Shape," Michael Myers, and then immediately recognize, at least subconsciously, that we are missing some crucial aspect of understanding.


Michael's true motives -- just like his concealing, ivory face-mask -- are not entirely filled in; not fully circumscribed. His personality and purpose seems oddly incomplete, and thus the shadowy, featureless mask fully and trenchantly reflects our inability to conceptualize or understand the thing that he represents. From this lack of understanding grows the seeds of terror. Why does Michael kill? Is he the Boogeyman? What drives him? How does he survive point-blank bullet strikes? As in life, Halloween provides no easily digestible answer to myriad questions about mortality and murder, destiny, choice, and chance.

Yet Halloween does brilliantly provide the attentive viewers some intriguing clues about Michael Myers and the things he signifies. Some of these hints actually seem to conflict with one another; and some are just barely enunciated. But again, this very facet of ambiguity makes the film (and the iconic character himself) resonate more powerfully in our minds. In other words, Halloween lets our imagination fill in the narrative, explanatory gaps, and again, a sense of terror takes hold. We see reflected in that blank, chilling mask all the things we fear -- all the things we don't understand -- about our lives in this mortal coil.

Basically -- to boil it down -- I believe that Halloween provides us at least four important "leads" about Michael Myers true and highly unusual nature (and it is important to remember that all of these clues don't take into account the "Laurie is his sister"-revisionism of the sequels. and the remake). These clues are, in no specific order:

1. Michael Myers is a Physical Representation of Laurie's Id.

This is the Freudian-interpretation of John Carpenter's Halloween. As you may be aware, the Id is a component of Freud's so-called "psychic apparatus" or "structural model for the human psyche." Basically, the Id houses our unconscious, our basic drives, our instincts. It controls our desire for sex and our other appetites too. It is amoral, chaotic and egocentric.

Consider now the buttoned-down, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), both a good student and a responsible babysitter . She clearly symbolizes the rationalist Ego, the part of us that holds the reigns of control over our lives and seeks to "please" the Id in a socially and culturally acceptable fashion. The Ego represents common sense; even consciousness itself. This is the Freudian "borrowed face," the veneer of appropriateness we all put on over our Ids.

Accordingly, underneath the mask, Michael represents Laurie's Id, unfettered and on-the-loose, lashing out at those around her who more "honestly" contend with their drives and libidos (Annie and Linda) than do the Ego. Laurie even seems to "activate" Michael Myers, at least in a sense, by singing aloud a modern magical incantation (a ballad) on the day he stalks her. The lyrics to that ballad go: "I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us," and set up, rather nicely, the thrust of Michael's murderous mission on October 31st. He systematically kills all of Laurie's friends and acquaintances until it is, indeed, just the two of them. They have sex (or hope to have sex), and he destroys them because they express what Laurie cannot.

Now, of course, some readers may rightly remind me that Michael cannot possibly be a product of Laurie's Id, since Michael was alive and killing before she was even born (back in 1963). That's right...but.. do we know for certain that Laurie's mission of murder isn't the the very thing imprinted upon that mentally-deranged mind behind the blank-white mask?

Horror scholar and professor Vera Dika wrote that "Carpenter openly represents Michael as Laurie's "id." This reading is supported by the inclusion of footage from Forbidden Planet (1956)...The earlier film had portrayed a situation in which the unconscious desires, or the id, of the main character became manifest and threatened to destroy him and his world. Similarly, Laurie is almost destroyed by the strength of her repressed unconscious impulses. Her battle with Michael is a substitute for the sexual act." (Vera Dika, Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, page 51).

John Carpenter himself lends some credence to this Freudian interpretation of Halloween by noting that Laurie, "The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife...Not because she's a virgin but because all that repressed sexual energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy...she doesn't have a boyfriend, and she finds someone -- him." (Danny Peary, Cult Movies. Delacorte Press, 1981, page 126).

This theory won't exactly find popularity with feminists or "Final Girl" proponents, since it positions Laurie as the repressed "creator" of the monster in Halloween, not a Girl-Powered heroine. Her suppressed sexual appetite and longing is the drive that brings Michael to life and even selects his victims. In this way, the noble Laurie somehow becomes responsible for Michael; or at the very least, connected to him in a very intimate, very personal way.

2. Michael Myers is Just a Developmentally Arrested Child Playing Halloween Tricks.

There's a such a thing as "psychological neoteny," the retention by adults of what are generally considered juvenile traits. In Halloween, Michael Myers seems "arrested" in an early point of childhood, acting out instances of so-called play but, because of his delayed maturity, failing to understand the true consequences of his actions.

A hallmark of childhood is the total and immersive interface with a world of make-believe play. In theory, make-believe play should teach a child to self-regulate and even learn self-discipline; a quality known as "executive function." But in Michael's specific case, nothing positive results from the fact that his mind is "frozen," essentially, in childhood. It's as though he's an overgrown kid, playing an elaborate trick-or-treat game without any acknowledgment of the harm that very game is causing to others outside himself.

It is impossible to deny the "game"-like aspects of Myers' behavior in the original Halloween. He sets a "stage" or "show "for Laurie in Lindsey's house a prank involving the corpses of her friends and a stolen grave marking/head-stone. Also, at least to some extent, it seems that Michael strongly identifies with young Tommy Doyle...since he follows the boy home from school too. Halloween II and later films seem to forget that Michael actually stalked two people on October 31st, 1978: Laurie and Tommy. I suggest that this is because Michael is essentially delayed at Tommy's age and somehow sees Doyle as a contemporary; or surrogate; someone his own age.

Michael evidences some interesting physical reactions after he kills the teenagers on Halloween night that also, if interpreted in a certain way, bolster this theory. He just stares and looks at them, tilting his head to one side. You must wonder if this is because the dead are -- counter to his expectations -- not getting up and continuing to play. Michael has killed them, but doesn't really understand the finality of death. He is thus quizzical and curious over the corpses, wondering why the teens don't want to play anymore. We can also judge that Michael is developmentally arrested at/or around 1963, the time when he committed his first murder (an action that no doubt also slowed down his formal education, another characteristic of many with delayed maturity.)

3. Michael Myers is the Physical Embodiment of Fate

Early in Halloween, there is a fascinating if brief scene set in a high school English class. Laurie is in attendance, listening only sporadically as an off-screen teacher drones on endlessly about the concept of fate in literature.

The unseen instructor then asks Laurie about her reading assignment, and Laurie answers by making a distinction between two authors, Samuels and Costaine. She notes that "Costaine wrote that fate was only somehow related to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element; like Earth, Air, Fire and Water." The teacher further notes that Lauriie is correct, that Samuels definitely "personified" fate. "It [fate[ stands" where a "man passes away."

Who else stands where a man passes away? Michael, of course, a character who survives stabbings and shootings and keeps on coming like a freight train. He is Fate "Personified" (as Samuels dictated) and you can't kill something like Earth, Air, Fire or Water, can you?

This revelation of Michael as Agent of Fate opens up the whole "Boogeyman" Argument; that perhaps there is actually a fifth natural element, Earth, Air, Fire, Water...And Evil. And that Michael as a representative of this natural force is thus unstoppable; in kiddie slang, The Boogeyman.

The film's discussion of fate contextualizes Michael not as a supernatural avenger, but as a heightened, natural one. He is not magical, but rather a force as natural (and as essential?) as Air or Water. So there is an order to the universe, it's not just what we had in mind...

4. Michael Myers is an Indictment of Contemporary, Rational Society: The Undiagnosable Amok in The Scientific World

Finally, I believe Halloween suggests (or at least implies...) that Michael Myers represents some kind of modern-day "dragon" in a society that no longer recognizes dragons as real monsters.

As I wrote in The Films of John Carpenter, Halloween willfully "deconstructs" our technological, contemporary world so that (as viewers experiencing the film) we actually appear have more in common with ancient proto-humans huddling in caves than with our rational, 21st century brethren. In particularly, nothing in Halloween works the way it is supposed to work by our "rationalist," "daylight" brand of thinking.

To wit: Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is a total and complete failure as a psychologist, unable not only to heal Michael Myers, but to understand what drives him. Loomis's role in Halloween is not that of a doctor, nor of a psychiatrist, but explicitly that of St. George: hunting down and slaying the dragon. But specifically, Michael Myers suffers from no diagnosable or treatable psychological disorder. He is "purely and simply Evil." If you look in the DSM-IV, you won't find "Evil" listed as a malady.

It is utterly unacceptable that rational, middle-class teenagers in Haddonfield should die at the knife of Michael Myers on the eve of the 21st century. That's just not supposed to happen in modern-day America. For one thing, there is the blanket of parental protection and love, which should shield children, right? Yet in Halloween, the parents (and most adults for that matter...) are mostly an afterthought. We see Laurie's father only briefly, never see the school teacher, and never get to meet the parents of Lynda, Annie, or even Tommy Doyle. Adults do not represent a positive, let alone helpful force in this horror vision.

Well, okay, if parents can't help save the children (representing our tomorrows...), then there's modern medicine and cutting-edge science, which should not only diagnose Michael, but keep him behind bars. Right? Not surprisingly, it fails too. The "system" fails, and Michael escapes.

All right, what about another imortant societal construct then: the law? Well, kindly Sheriff Brackett can't even protect his own daughter, let alone capture a mad-dog killer! Not a single cop on patrol even notices Michael's car parked on the street!

In other words, all of our carefully-constructed traditional bureaucracies and cherished codes of justice, belief and conduct ultimately offer Annie, Lynda and Bob zero protection. These kids are on their own. They are prey.

In fact, these teens have it much worse than our cave-men ancestors in pre-history. At least the cave-men knew to be afraid, knew to fear the forces in the dark that they could not comprehend. The characters in Halloween are thoroughly unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes Michael Myers, and that's why they are such easy pickings. The movie thus indicts modern society rather fully: it is woefully unprepared to combat what may be a "natural force," Evil Itself.

J.P. Telotte wrote that "What Carpenter seems intent on demonstrating is how consistently our perceptions and our understandings of the world around us fall short...We are conditioned by our experience and culture to see less...to dismiss from our image contents those visions for which we might not be able to account..."(American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film: "Through a Pumpkin's Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror." University of Illinois Press, 1987, page 122).

Now, I am not suggesting that any one of these four interpretations is absolutely the "right one" to come to a perfect understanding of Carpenter's film, only that Halloween retains such power because the truth of Michael Myers seems to dwell in all these interpretations.

Ultimately, Halloween preserves the Shape's mystery and thus lets you decide about the important things like meaning. Many of the sequels and indeed the Rob Zombie 2007 remake fail so egregiously to live up to the original Carpenter film because they work diligently towards an opposite (and inferior) end; because they seek to diagram in details the answers about Michael for the audience's consumption and peace of mind. Yet peace of mind -- closure itself -- runs counter to what good horror ought to be, at least by my personal barometer. Who wants to leave a horror movie content that you understand everything you saw; that it all fits into a neat little box? As I've said before, I want my slumber troubled; I wantmy mind bothered by the things only the genre can show me and tell me. If I desire peace of mind or resolution from ambiguity, I'll watch network television.

As a direct result of all the well-meaning but psychologically facile explanations of the sequels and the remake, the magic of Michael Myers is somehow bled away. When we understand Michael is simply hunting his biological sister down, he becomes nothing but a garden variety wacko with a tough hide. When he is infused with supernatural powers and becomes a genetically-engineered Druid observing Samhain, he's just another easily explainable Devil, only one with an alternate religious belief system.

And finally, the magic of Michael Myers is totally squandered when we bear witness to the peculiarities of his abusive childhood; when we come to understand that he was raised in a violent, redneck household and is merely carrying on in the family tradition. Thus the later movies, and especially the re-imaginations nullify The Shape's Power; the Shape's Tao. They turn it to ashes.

When considering "The Shape," I submit that it is better to ponder and speculate about Evil's True Nature than to know it all. Oscar Wilde once wrote that the greatest mystery in life is actually "one's self," and Halloween remains such an indelible viewing experience because -- in addition to technical expertise and canny imagery -- it leaves more than abundant psychic space for our imaginations to ponder it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick or Treat TV

As Halloween nears -- if you're anything like me -- you haul out your all-time favorite horror films on DVD, VHS or Blu-Ray and enjoy them all over again...for the umpteenth time. However, if you care to mix things up just a bit this year (and if you possess a vast video archive...) you may want to celebrate this All Hallow's Eve with the most memorable Halloween episodes of classic genre TV series instead.

Specifically, if you're looking for holiday-themed efforts from TV history, these are some of the notable titles to consider:

1.) "Halloween" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) In this second season episode of the beloved Joss Whedon vampire series, we learn that Halloween is the one night of the year in which Sunnydale's vampires stay in and watch television. Apparently they don't appreciate the crass consumerism of the Halloween holiday. But Buffy, Xander and Willow are vexed anyway when their Halloween costumes turn distressingly real (courtesy of an evil shop owner named Ethan...). Dressed as a soldier, Xander gains courage. Buffy -- as a 17th century damsel in distress -- loses hers. And Willow, garbed as a ghost, develops the powers (and physical limitations...) of an apparition.


If you want to make it a Buffy Halloween all-together, another Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween-themed entry is the sixth season's entry "All the Way," which involves Dawn dating a vampire on All Hallow's Eve.

2.) "The Curse of Frank Black" from Millennium (1997). This memorable episode of Chris Carter's cult classic provides a peek at what an average Halloween is like for everyone's favorite "dark" profiler, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). The episode features a nod to both The Simpsons and Space: Above and Beyond (1995), but more meaningfully, it gazes at a specific Halloween from Frank's youth, and the way that it has continued to affect him throughout his life.


"The Curse of Frank Black" is part whimsy and part tragedy, and it goes a long way towards contextualizing the history (and unusual abilities and insights...) of Frank Black. "The Curse of Frank Black" occurs during a spell in which Frank is estranged from his wife and the Millennium Group, and banished from his paradise...his perfect yellow house. Frank visits that house in this episode, and -- among other things -- confronts some of the ghosts haunting him.

3.) "Freddy's Trick or Treats" from October 30, 1988 is an episode of the mostly-forgotten Freddy's Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street the Series, the cheap jack syndicated anthology starring horror icon and Elm Street dream demon, Monsieur Krueger (Robert Englund). The series ran for forty-four episodes in the late 1980s and featured appearances by future stars such as Brad Pitt.


Here, Freddy Krueger terrorizes future Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay and her friends on a Springfield college campus. There are actually two stories featured here, but this Halloween entry wasn't exactly Freddy's finest hour...

4.) "Hellowe'en" from Friday the 13th: The Series aired on October 31, 1987. It was the fifth episode of the beloved syndicated series' first season, and the story involved a Halloween costume party held at the cursed antique store, Curious Goods. The party goes awry thanks to some unwanted guests, and soon the episode involves the dangerous conjuration of the series' recurring evil antagonist, Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong). Micki (Robey), Jack (Chris Wiggins) and Ryan (John D. Le May) have to save the (holi)day.

5.) "All Hallow's Eve" actually aired on the same Halloween as that memorable Friday the 13th episode, and it's a fun installment from Fox Network's Werewolf: The Series. The story involves series protagonist Eric Cord (John J. York) locking himself in a haunted house on Halloween, just as the irksome werewolf pentagram appears on his palm. Inside the house, he meets a strange, spooky denizen. Just think, we could be enjoying this episode on DVD right now if the series' DVD release hadn't been canceled just last month...

6.) "Halloween Candy" aired on October 31st, 1985, and was featured in the second season of the syndicated anthology from George Romero and Laurel, Entertainment called Tales from the Darkside (now available on DVD). Directed by the great Tom Savini, this creepy half-hour show involved a nasty old miser who stingily refuses to dole out candy on Halloween night. At least, that is, until a rea life goblin shows up on his doorstep for some authentic trick-or-treating...

And don't forget these Halloween-based episodes either, especially if you prefer romance and sci-fi to horror:

7.)"Masques" from CBS's cult series Beauty and the Beast aired on October 30, 1987 and while it isn't horror -based per se, it is set on Halloween and involves a monster of sorts. the regal-lion like Vincent. Here, Ron Perlman plays that Shakespeare quoting "Beast" and at a costume ball set on October 31st the lonesome Vincent is able -- for one night -- to mingle with the "normal" people of the Big Apple. The denizens of New York mistake his monstrous appearance for a (really scary...) costume and so the Beast's intense isolation is soothed. Linda Hamilton plays Vincent's love, Catherine.

8). "Catspaw" from Star Trek (1967) isn't exactly a horror show either, but in this story, the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters all kinds of Halloween "spooks" on an alien world, including a giant black cat, a sorcerer, and a malevolent witch. "Captain Kiiiiiiiiiiirk," the witch calls...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This House You Have To Watch Every Minute: The Seen and Unseen In The Haunting films (1963/1999)

When first we glimpse Hill House in Robert Wise's chilling The Haunting (1963), the imposing old structure is a featureless black obelisk: a jagged silhouette carved out from brooding night sky.

Secrets dwell inside Hill House -- in the dark; in the night -- and yet the director's selection of visualization (a shadowed, blackened house with no distinguishable architectural features) purposefully confounds our desire to peer inside this monument to the unknown; to learn about the "unquiet dead" who may walk the lonely, vast hallways of this spectral monolith.

Hill House is a place "born to be bad," according to the film's opening narration, but it is something more than that too: "an undiscovered country waiting to be explored." And The Undiscovered Country, as we remember from our Shakespeare, is Death Itself.

Robert Wise structures his horror film (based on the sterling novel by Shirley Jackson) as a probe into that ultimate unknown; but more than that too, as an ambiguous probe into that unknown. Never in the film, for instance, is the audience 100% certain that it has actually witnessed the supernatural and the ghostly. On the contrary, our senses are heightened and tweaked by disturbing noises, by the sinister-seeming twist of a doorknob, and more. Yet certainty still eludes us; just as certainty about the paranormal eludes people in real life.

You Should Be Receptive...and Innocent: Exploring The Self in The Haunting.

It is no mistake or coincidence that the four explorers countenancing the chaotic, uncertain terrain of Hill House are -- in the spirit of Hugh Crain's strange edifice itself -- a determinedly unconventional group. This is important structurally to the narrative. The sojourners reflect the sojourn.

Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) gave up a "conventional" life and a proper upbringing (courtesy of his upper-crust English family) to prove the existence of the supernatural. This is his life's work, which makes him either commendably dedicated or utterly foolish. He says he wants his people "innocent and receptive" so that they will discover the secrets of Hill House. If someone is innocent and receptive, however, he or she is not looking for the angles that might be played; and every little noise becomes significant and meaningful. So Markway may (intentionally or unintentiaonally...) be encouraging hallucinations or delusions (though he says, explicitly, that this must not be the case if their research is considered to be legitimate).

Theodora (Claire Bloom) also fits the bill of "unconventional." She not only boasts extra-sensory perception, but is "out" as a lesbian. To some people in traditional society in the 1960s the latter quality would make her untrustworthy at best, abnormal at worst. And when strange handwriting appears on the wall of Hill House, Theodora is the first suspect. She's jealous of the attention Markway showers on Nell, and this spooky handwriting (which names Nell...) may be her petty revenge; her game playing. She has a cruel, jealous streak that could effect the exploration of Hill House.

Then there's Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a playboy and would-be millionaire who has a frat-boy sense of humor; but also a burgeoning curiosity and conscience. Is he just a money-grubber, a dabbler, or something more? What's his angle?

And finally, we arrive at the most unconventional of the explorers: Eleanor or Nell (Julie Harris), a spinster who had a poltergeist experience as a child but who, in essence, has never truly left the confines of her home. The sheltered, inexperienced woman has spent years caring for her invalid mother (now deceased...) and the chance to explore Hill House is most definitely an escape from the drudgery of her day-to-day existence. She is motivated to stay at Hill House; to "belong" to the group. We wonder: is Nell's subconscious somehow causing the noises that bedevil Hill House at night (as it caused the rock storm that fell upon her house in childhood?) Or is Nell hallucinating? Or, worst of all: is she so desperate for attention that she is "pretending" all the experiences with the supernatural. When Nell almost falls off a veranda at Hill House, who can adequately judge what caused her to grow dizzy? It is convenient that Markway, the object of her affection, would rush in to her to care for her...

These idiosyncratic individuals -- who don't conform to the boundaries of society-at-large and who don't entirely fit the bill of "normal" or "trustworthy" -- investigate the home of a 19th century robber baron of sorts, Hugh Crain. He too is a kindred spirit: an unconventional person and one who didn't believe in the rules of society. He built his oddball house to reflect those beliefs. For instance, all the doors in Hill House are hung crookedly...so that -- after a time -- they slam shut, apparently of their own volition. And all the angles inside the house are off-center a bit....just like the characters in the drama. The house --as Markway reminds us -- "does have its oddities." Just like every team member...

In such a strange environment -- with four such anarchistic individuals in close-quarters -- the probe into the unknown is tainted by the frailties of the individual personalities. We can't rule out that one or all of the explorers is perpetrating some kind of hoax; or simply that some one's imagination has gotten out of control. Consider the moment in which Nell becomes convinced that someone is holding her hand in the dark. She believes it to be Theodora, but when the lights come up, Theodora is across the room, in her own bed. Wise's camera never leaves Nell's face during the "event." It stays on Nell, in extreme close-up throughout the purported "visitation", and thus we are left to wonder if she is hallucinating, or really countenancing something supernatural. If something were holding and crushing her hand...why don't we ever see it?

Similarly, on the night of the loud noises at their door; Theodora and Nell never actually see anything abnormal. And importantly, Luke and Markway are elsewhere in the house at the time...they could easily be responsible for the noises. Similarly, anyone could have written Nell's name on the wall. When the film's biggest scare arrives -- Mrs. Markway's (Lois Maxwell) sudden appearance from the attic -- even it is not ghostly in nature. She became lost in the attic and tried to escape...stunning Nell.

And finally, Nell's death could be suicide brought on by the fact that the attention seeker was being ostracized from the group, and on and on...

My argument vis-a-vis the original The Haunting is this: I believe Hill House is haunted and that the explorers experience paranormal or supernatural events there. However, the film retains an authentic sense of terror because Wise walks the line of ambiguity brilliantly. Nothing supernatural is ever truly seen, and we become perched on the edge of our seats by the things we don't see; but which we believe to exist. I'm not making the argument that showing ghosts in horror movies is always less effective than hiding them, only noting that The Haunting still scares -- 45 years after it was made -- because it exhibits this spine-tingling sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. We don't know what is making the horrible noise outside the bedroom; we don't know if that is a human face in the sculpture on the wall, or merely a trick of the light. We can't be certain if the door is bending because of a supernatural force...or someone leaning on the other side of it. But taken all together, these events are chilling and add up to something meancing. More so, they are chilling because we never get satisfactory answers about them.

Wise's exquisite camerawork in The Haunting generates genuine terror, but notice that the camera truly grows perturbed only when the dramatis personae have also grown perturbed or hysterical. Theodora and Nell are worked up to raging terror by the time Wise deploys that prowling, angling camera which circumscribes the perimeter of the bedroom door. We interpret this odd, angled movement as the search by something inimical -- on the other side of the door -- seeking an entry point. But we see nothing; and the camera's twisted perspective could simply be the perspective of two very frightened women Similarly, Nell's fainting spell on the veranda coincides with the camera lunge from the high tower; again as though something invisible is approaching...or attacking. Yet the sudden, alarming camera movement could be interpreted as a reflection of Nell's sudden, dangerous vertigo. Especially if we are to believe she is suicidal (a belief which also plays into the climax and the staircase set piece).

And by the time we see a Hill House door swell and retract (as if breathing by itself...), every character -- especially Markway -- is desperate and fearful. These apparent manifestations of the supernatural could be the manifestations of the characters' out of control hysteria and fear.

One of The Haunting's central set-pieces involves Nell and Markway's ascent up a rickety, vast spiral staircase. The staircase is loose from the wall (again, not a danger that is supernatural in origin). But the quest to reach the top metaphorically reflects the team's overall quest. Markway and his people are climbing the tallest mountain and seeking answers on the summit. But even they cannot reach Heaven for answers about life beyond death. And again, notice that when Nell and Markway do finally achieve the top of the spiral staircase, Nell is frightened out of her mind not by a ghost...but by another desperate human, Markway's wife. In other words, Nell has reached the pinnacle of Hill House -- climbed as far as she can possibly climb -- and the terrors/answers she gets are still of the human, not supernatural variety.

The Haunting succeeds as a great horror movie because there exists enough ambiguity in the camera-work, the characters, and in the script to support multiple interpretations. Either the house is haunted, or Nell is a very disturbed individual responsible for the so-called haunting, or all the characters are just "innocent and receptive" to their admittedly creepy environment. These interpretations compete for primacy in The Haunting, and that competition results in an incredibly active viewing experience; a high-level of engagement with the material. And that engagement leads to unbearable suspense...


Just Because You Can Do A Thing: Remaking and Unmaking The Haunting (1999)

Ambiguity was not in fashion in 1999 when Jan De Bont re-made The Haunting. Therefore, what remained unseen but detected in Wise's classy original film became seen....and predictable. Not just seen actually, but dramatized in full-color, in ample lighting, utilizing the latest in state-of-the-art computer generated special effects. Because of this see-it-all approach, the remake leaves itself only one possible interpretation: Hill House is haunted by a malevolent spirit who can re-shape reality to his liking.

You can almost detect how the makers of The Haunting (1999) were onto the kernel of something clever in reconceiving the film. They seized on the good idea that Hill House was an outward manifestation or reflection of Hugh Crain's twisted psyche. But they went too far. The filmmakers thus transformed Hill House into a bloated monstrosity with oversized rooms that might resemble a human rib-cage, or a bizarre drawing by H.R. Giger more than a real house. Again, you can understand this approach at the same time that you realize it just doesn't work. Houses -- even haunted houses -- aren't hatched or born out of twisted psyches. They are built and constructed plank-by-plank and it is simply impossible to believe that the out-of-proportion, bizarre Hill House of The Haunting (1999) was ever built by 19th century hands, using 19th century techniques and plans. Because of the house's egregious (though inventive) design, the film sacrifices some vital piece of believability. A house with a Godzilla-sized fireplace? With a hall of mirrors? With a virtual river inside one hallway?

Bottom line: If we can't believe in the house as a real, tangible place from human history; we don't believe in the story being told there, and the movie automatically fails to suspend our disbelief.

Another bad move in The Haunting grants the Crain-spirit seemingly invincible powers over flesh and blood, stone and mortar. The house repetitively grows appendage-like vines out of the walls and entraps human characters in them on a regular basis. Stone gargoyles come to life and attack people in broad daylight. Curtains dance with ghostly apparitions whose shapes we can see, process, and comprehend. The digital special effects are repeated so often and in such ample light that the "horror" imagery becomes commonplace instead of frightening. A flying gargoyle and ambulatory statue are things you can run and hide from, things you can strike with your fist or with a weapon. Contrast that kind of nemesis with the amorphous, unseen thing perhaps prowling in Wise's original. How could you escape an angry spirit that seemed to exist by its own set of "laws?"

The Haunting remake eschews ambiguity in other ways. We also see and detect here the all-too-human motives of Hill House's ghost, Hugh Crain. He's apparently enslaving all the children he used to exploit in life (just like Kathie Lee Gifford...) and this version of Eleanor (Lily Taylor) -- a surprise(!) descendant of Crain's second wife -- must free the children from his hellish grip. All is made right when Nell and the children ascend to Heaven and Crain passes through the "door of judgment" to Hell itself.

Again, there's nothing like taking uncertainty entirely out of the equation. In the original Haunting it wasn't even plain whether one ghost or multiple ghosts (or no ghosts...) were at work. The new Haunting provides us an "earthly" agenda for a specific ghost (enslavement of the children), a proper fate (punishment for bad deeds) and a reward for the righteous victor in the fight against him. De Bont's The Haunting takes the shivery indeterminism of Wise's classic and shelves it in favor of mind-numbing, imagination-crushing certitude.

No expense was spared to remake The Haunting in 1999, but the spine-tingling ambiguity and uncertainty of Wise's original were abandoned in favor of an onslaught of digital effects. This is a case where seeing is not believing; and where certainty crushes the mind's capacity to imagine the unseen. That's why the original The Haunting still "walks alone" as a classic.

The remake, in every sense of the word, is un-"Wise."