And now for a digression on theory. In the new millennium everyone seems to be an auteurist, lionizing directors who have recognizable trademarks, down-playing the importance of a script or cast to a finished film. Throughout the '60s, director Robert Wise was an auteurist whipping boy, stigmatized because of his lavish middle-brow successes with "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," though in previous decades he'd made a number of memorable genre films ("The Body Snatcher," "The Set-Up," "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). His 1963 version of "The Haunting" was a critical and box-office flop, yet it's come to be regarded as a classic. Intelligently adapting Shirley Jackson's novel, it updates old-dark-house conventions with a psychological self-consciousness that, for once, intensifies the horror instead of defusing it. Academic ghost-hunter Richard Johnson summons two women who are sensitive to paranormal stimuli -- a lesbian with ESP ( Claire Bloom) and a ravaged virgin ( Julie Harris) who once had a poltergeist experience -- to an ominous architectural behemoth in the Massachusetts countryside. (Potential heir Russ Tamblyn also shows up.) The horror is rooted in Harris' uncanny ability to convey a perilous loneliness. Her character has spent too much of her life attending a sick, uncaring mother; she now yearns to belong, even to a group as odd as this one. Director Wise brings home the eerie presences that prey on her (or seduce her) with the audiovisual equivalent of concrete music. (The result is infinitely more unsettling than Jan De Bont's 1999 DreamWorks remake, with its garish designs and special effects, and its stupid reframing of the research team as insomniacs turned Guinea pigs for a study of human fear.) Auteurists should have taken note: "The Haunting" wasn't the first time that Wise had centered a suspense film on a troubled daughter and followed her through a supposed haunted house. He did it at the very start of his career: in his bold and tender 1944 debut, "Curse of the Cat People."
Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times