"The Haunting"

Richard Johnson, top left, Claire Bloom, Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn in 1963's "The Haunting." (Turner Classic / July 29, 1999)

Robert Wise's chilling 1963 psychological horror film, "The Haunting," is a ghost story that actually never conjures up a ghost on screen.

"It has always been one of my favorites in the horror genre because of the subtlety, the atmosphere," said film critic and historian Stephen Farber, who is presenting the 50th anniversary screening of "The Haunting" on Tuesday night at the Regent in Westwood.

"It really creates fear and terror rather than bloody images that we get so often now," he noted.

Based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," the black-and-white thriller shot in England revolves around Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of anthropology with a fervid interest in the occult who decides to investigate a mansion with a long history of paranormal activity. He invites Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the heir to the mansion, a psychic (Claire Bloom) and the fragile Eleanor (Julie Harris), who had spent most of her adult life taking care of her late mother. Eleanor seems to connect to the house, which seems to have a life of its own, and begins to mentally unravel. 

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Five decades ago, film critic Judith Crist described "The Haunting" as a "thoroughly satisfying ghost story for grown ups … completely contemporary in its psychological overtones and implications."

Though Wise is best known for his Oscar-winning musicals — 1961's "West Side Story," which he co-directed with Jerome Robbins, and 1965's "The Sound of Music" — the late filmmaker got his start in the 1940s at RKO directing atmospheric horror films for innovative producer Val Lewton, including 1945's "The Body Snatcher."

"Val Lewton's favorite theme was the greatest thing that people had was fear of the unknown," Wise told The Times in a 2000 interview. " 'What's that in the shadows back there? That noise?' That's what he played on. So when I did 'The Haunting,' it was a kind of a tribute to him. I have had so many people say to me about 'The Haunting' that it is 'the scariest film I have ever seen.' But I didn't show anything. It was just suggestions. There is nothing in it. It was shot in black and white, and I had a marvelous cinematographer. And the music was a big help." 

"The Haunting," Farber observed, "also has a strong emotional power, which is rare in most horror films."

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Most of that emotion is generated by Harris.

"She really carries the movie," said Farber. "You really feel for her tremendously by the end of the movie. She is a genuinely tragic character because she is someone who is so isolated. You really feel a tremendous sense of loss and grief by the end of the movie."

Harris isolated herself from the small cast during production.

Tamblyn, who will be appearing with Farber at the screening Tuesday evening, said that the actress "stayed to herself and got into character."

Though "The Haunting" is one of his favorite movies, Tamblyn initially turned down the part because "I think I was just dumb," he said, laughing. "I had just done 'West Side Story,' and I was looking to do something pretty big." 

Tamblyn, who was under contract to MGM, was nudged by the studio to reconsider — or face the prospect of being put on suspension.

"I re-read and I thought, 'It reads better now,'" he said, laughing again.

During production, Wise let Tamblyn ad-lib.

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"The part became a little more than it was from reading the script," said the actor. "The more I committed myself to it, the more excited I got about the movie."