The Haunting was made by Robert Wise. Robert Wise was a commercial director who had the unique ability of being able to craft strong, if not in many cases classic, material in whatever genre he worked be it horror as here; science fiction The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979); the musical West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965); the Western Blood on the Moon (1948), So Big (1953), Tribute to a Bad Man (1956); the war film The Desert Rats (1953), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), The Sand Pebbles (1966); film noir The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), The Captive City (1952), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959); or true story melodrama Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), I Want to Live (1958).
Robert Wise served his apprenticeship under the great producer Val Lewton, directing two of Lewtons classic psychological horror films The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Lewton always preferred unseen terrors that lived in an ambiguity between whether they were real or psychological rather than overt monsters. Studying under Lewton clearly influenced Wise all of Wises subsequent horror films could be said to be Lewtonian films. The Haunting, when one thinks about it, is the ultimate Lewtonian film. The Lewton influence similarly also rears its head in Robert Wises reincarnation film Audrey Rose (1977).
The shocks that Robert Wise crafts in The Haunting are some of the most sophisticated and finely constructed ever placed on film. Like the best of Lewton, all ghosts in The Haunting take place entirely by suggestion the cold spots and the phantom dogs are only mentioned by other people but never seen, the doors that close of their own free will only do so when the camera is not looking. One of the moments that stays vividly in memory is the scene where Julie Harris lies in bed at night, terrified by the noises outside in the hallway and holds onto what she thinks is Claire Blooms hand, only to find in the morning that Bloom was in the neighbouring room the entire night not with her, whereupon comes the spooky realisation: Oh my God, whose hand was I holding? The classic scene that everybody remembers is the one where the four huddle in the dining room as an unseen presence thunders up the hallway outside in huge booming footsteps that gradually come nearer. The doorway to the dining room strains under the strain of its pummelling, even bending in, before the presence departs. It is a terrifying assault, all the more so for us being given no glimpse of what is on the other side of the door. Robert Wise chose to shoot The Haunting in black-and-white at a time when black-and-white film stock was almost entirely a thing of the past and it is an artistic choice that only serves to heighten the atmosphere.
A considerable amount of The Hauntings effectiveness rests in the subtle character interplay. Much is only apparent upon a second viewing like the dramas and interplay going on between the various characters Eleanors adolescent crush on Markway, Theodoras understated lesbianism. (The lesbianism aspect has led to an intriguing controversy surrounding the film. The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror (1986) slammed the film for what it concluded was overt homophobia based on one scene where Julie Harris reacts in revulsion, saying she doesnt like Claire Blooms type blowing the entire almost never stated aspect of the film (and what is after all only one characters reaction) into the entire reason for dismissing it). All four principals etch strong characterisations. Richard Johnson notably gives a performance of strong, confident assurance. In particular, Julie Harriss performance as a frightened, introverted woman venturing out into the world for the first time is conducted with a great deal of conviction.