Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House -- read the book or watch the movie?


The Haunting (1963)

Sometimes it feels like without books the movie industry would grind to a halt. Think about the biggest films of this year. Think about the hugely hyped movie that's being released this Valentine's Grey. I mean Day.

Mostly I don't see the movie. Sometimes I didn't love the book, like the Life of Pi, or I was too distressed or depressed by it, like The Kite Runner and Gone Girl. Or a really liked the book and just wanted it to stay a book. In my head. My pictures.

The adaptations I do see and love bring something new to a book. Like the BBC's Sherlock. Different, but respectful. And that's how I feel about The Haunting (1963) and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. But enough of this philosophical crap. On with the reviews.

The Book

Eleanor has spent her whole life looking after her invalid mother. With nothing to show for her efforts, she jumps at the invitation to spend a few weeks at supposedly haunted Hill House with a professor of the paranormal. There's something so self-conscious and sweet about Nell at the opening of the book, relishing and narrating her own journey to Hill House. Then about the instant bond she forms with Theodora. After residing in the house a little while she quickly becomes self-conscious and strange. She seems to be suffering from some sort of social anxiety and a fervent wish to belong somewhere. ANYwhere. It's needy, and it's worrying.

The Movie

The first thing I'll say here is I AM TALKING ABOUT THE 1963 ADAPTATION. Not the god-awful slush that seems to be the 1999 remake. The second thing I'll say is that the premise of the film is exactly the same as the book above. It is also presented in a slick way with a short prologue stuck on the front that gives the viewer a quick (and augmented) history of Hill House. The black and white footage is stunning and the production is fantastic. What is interesting is the way the film takes the same main character, the same setting and the same basic ending, conflates things, twists others, and shoves it into a little black dress that is so damn engaging and so damn thrilling.

So, Which One?

Do you like to be scared?* No? Well, stick to the book. But if you do like to be scared, spend a little time with the movie. The book isn't scary and it has all the good things about the film except the things that go BANG in the night ... Almost.

I have to say, I like the film better. (Why do I feel like that's heretical?) I like what the film did with Dr Montague and his wife. (His poor wife!) I like all the creepy statues in the house and the doors that swing open, not closed. I like the trapdoor (spoilers, won't say any more). It's tense. It's direct. But most of all I like the clever, clever ending. The book gives you two plausible endings. The film gives you three.

*My boyfriend wasn't scared. But he's scared by movies like Jaws, not by ghosts.

Have you read the book or watched the film? Which one did you like?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Gothic

I've been on a bit of a gothic kick this last fortnight. It started with The Art of Gothic documentary and Dracula (1958) on the BBC for Halloween.

Above, Christopher Lee as Dracula, emerging from his coffin. His suave, classy and ferocious interpretation of Dracula is probably my favourite. From interviews he seems to have a love/hate relationship with playing the role, and with Hammer Production, the British film company behind the 60s and 70s horror revival. Playing Dracula made him famous, but he was frustrated that the films ignored just about every line that Stoker wrote for the character. For the purists, you can find recordings of Lee reading the 1897 novel -- Stokers words and Lee's stentorian voice. *frisson*

The Good

As well as loving the above, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar I've munched my way though The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole (1764), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (1820), and Honeysuckle Cottage, P.G. Wodehouse (1975). Otranto is one of the silliest novels I've ever read. I rather liked it. Sleepy Hollow could have done with more talk about ghosts and less of food, but the writing was fantastic. And Wodehouse, what can I say. Always a pleasure. In this short story a dead aunt is exerting not a malevolent influence on the residents of her former house, but a soppy, sentimental one.

On Halloween itself we watched Don't Look Now (1973), an adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier supernatural thriller, The Wicker Man (1973) and Taste of Fear (1961).

Don't Look Now was very good, but I sense that the book would be better. The Wicker Man ... more on that below. But Taste of Fear! What a gem. Another Hammer horror film.

A young wheelchair-bound woman comes home for the first time in ten years to find her step mother (above, top) acting strangely. Her father's corpse keeps appearing and disappearing around the house. The doctor (above, below) seems to be in league with the stepmother. Yes, that's Christopher Lee again. He says its his favourite Hammer film that he was in, but I would say it's far from his best role. It might have been if they'd fleshed out his character a bit more, like they did with the chauffeur. 

Above is a photograph I took at the British Library yesterday. What an UTTERLY FABULOUS exhibition. It had handwritten Blakes, Brontes and Byrons, original models of Gothic houses, old film reels, paintings, set sketches from Hammer horrors. Do go see it if you're in London.

The Bad

You can't love everything as much as you want to. This book and this film are classics with legions of adoring fans but they are just not for me. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a famous ghost novella about a governess who keeps seeing the ghosts of the previous governess and the former valet about the place. They had an affair, and the governess suspects that the children know, and now their Innocence Has Been Tainted. Are the ghosts real, or are they hysterical projections of the governess's Victorian fear of sex? It is a good book as far as themes (oh my god the themes the themes) go, but frankly the writing is impossible. If pressed, I might even say rubbish.

Ah, The Wicker Man. A cult classic. Horror's answer to Citizen Kane, apparently. Appearing in Top Ten British Films of All Time lists since the 90s. Christopher Lee's self-professed best film he's ever been in. (Yes Lee again!) I make a habit of ignoring reviews before I see a film but these tid bits I gleaned from the IMBD. I can proudly say I didn't know what it was about before I watched it.

Now I've seen it I'm still not sure what I watched. I think it was conservative paranoia. Or possibly a musical. But it wasn't scary and I don't think it was very good. Perhaps in 1973 it would have struck a chord with me.

The best part of it was Edward Woodward. Not his acting, but just saying his name. And then saying it without the ds: Ee-war Woo-woo. Hours of fun.


Dracula, what have they done to you? *sobs*

The Gothic ... on my reading and watching list

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and more Hammer horror in general
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
M.R. James short stories
More Susan Hill -- I saw her speak at the British Library a week ago, she's fantastic
Finally finishing the epic The Castle of Udolpho

What have you been reading and watching for Halloween?