One of my earliest memories of being terrified by a horror film was by this film and, while over the years I may have forgotten about it, the film still creeps me out all these years later. It is a masterpiece in the art of deriving scares but never showing what is causing the scares
Hill House is introduced to us with a voice-over from Dr Markway (Richard Johnson). Despite the ancient ornate look of the house it’s only 90 years old. Built by an eccentric (translation: insane but rich and powerful) man called Hugh Crain for his young wife and baby daughter but his wife was killed on the driveway to the house and never even saw it. He got second wife and she died falling from a high tower in the house. Hugh went abroad where he died leaving Abigail in the house alone. She grew up in the house and grew old and when she became infirm and bed-bound she hired a companion to look after her. One day the companion was snogging some guy out in the garden and never heard Abigail banging on the wall for help and she was found dead later. The companion continued to live in the house for some years afterwards shunned by locals who suspect she killed the old woman either by her own hand or neglect. One day she hanged herself in from the balcony in the library. The ownership of house passed down to the family of the companion and is presently owned the very wealthy Mrs Sanderson (Fay Compton).
Markway is requesting Mrs Sanderson’s permission to stay in the house n conduct research in the hope of finding definite scientific evidence of the existence of an afterlife. Mrs Sanderson is intrigued and asks about how he intends to do this. Markway wants to bring a group of people that have had experience of supernatural phenomena and getting them to simply observe what happens. Mrs Sanderson agrees but wants her nephew Luke to be there to keep an eye on things. Luke expects to inherit Hill House and Mrs Sanderson gets a small amount of sadistic pleasure at making him stay there.
One of the people Markham invites to take part in his experiment is Eleanor (Nell) Vance (Julie Harris), a nervous awkward woman who lived with her mother, looking after her when she was ill until she died. Now she lives with her sister’s family and her sister is not letting her take their car to get to Hill House. We hear Eleanor’s inner monologue and her resentment at the way she gets treated by her family. For her this invitation is the most important thing in her life, a chance to with people who wanted her to be there. She takes the car anyway and her inner monologue sounds more like the resentful thoughts of a rebellious teenager than of a mature adult.
Eleanor gets to the gates of Hill House which are locked. The caretaker Mr Dudley (Valentine Dyall) doesn’t want to let her in but Nell is very insistent. When she sees the house she feels both frightened and excited by it. Mrs Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) is ready to open the door before she knocks and she really goes out of her to try to scare Nell. After she takes Nell to her room she goes through a creepy speech about how she and Mrs Dudley leave before it gets dark and it’s miles to town and there’s no-one to help them at night. After her little speech she leaves with an evil grin on her face.
Nell has look around the room and feeling frightened. She has look at the bathroom and hears voices from next bedroom sharing the bathroom. The second guest of Dr Markway has arrived is being given Mrs Dudley’s little speech but she’s not paying any attention and she introduces herself to Nell as Theodora just Theodora but Theo (Claire Bloom) to her friends. In contrast to Nell, Theo is very confiden and outgoing. Once Theo has settled into her room Nell puts on her new clothes and they go hunting for the dining room. This proves much harder than you’d think and they can’t even find a light switch. Fortunately Dr Markway finds them. He explains that Crain had designed the house so that there are no right angles and any doors left open will eventually close by themselves. It also means they layout of building is like a maze. The fourth member of their party Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) emerges from the room adjoining the dining room with a martini he‘s mixed for them all. Luke is young, friendly and very sceptical about Markway’s hunt for ghosts.
After dinner they relax in the parlour which Markway has chosen as their base of operations. Nell is feeling comfortable and among friends. She is still nervous and easily startled when Theo shouts out while playing cards with Luke. When Nell and Theo go to bed Theo reminds her that she’s right next door if Nell needs her. Nell is wakened sometime during the night by a loud banging and still half asleep she thinks her mother is banging on the wall for attention. When Nell realises where she is she is gripped with fear. She hears Theo calling her name and runs through to find a terrified Theo huddled in a blanket. The room is cold and Nell huddles in next to Theo. The noise is like someone pounding in the walls with cannonball as Theo describes it later to Markway. The pounding stops and is replaced the quieter but ghastlier sound of some sort of beast grunting and sniffing around outside the door of Theo’s room. There’s silence and just when Nell thinks it over the pounding comes back louder than ever right at the door. The tension build s up so much Nell feels she has to scream and she shouts for it to stop. The pounding stops but Nell regrets shouting because she’s let whatever is out there know that someone is in the room. Soon the temperature returns to normal, Theo senses that the presence is gone and they hear the voices of Luke and Markway out in corridor. Theo and Nell are laughing with relief when they tell Markway about what happened. Markway and Luke had gone outside chasing some dog that they never caught and Markway suspects that whatever spirit is in the house it deliberately separated them and warns them to be careful.
At breakfast next morning Nell finds just Markway in the dining room and Mrs Dudley serving. Alone with Markway Nell’s thoughts reveal that she’s becoming infatuated with him and she seems unaware that he’s married. Markway seems unaware of her feelings, focused as his on his research and never show s and more than open friendly but always professional interest. Theo comes down and she seems to have turned into a bitch towards Nell but Markway says that it was deliberate attempt to stop Nell feeling frightened. Luke comes down and he has something to show them. In the corridor upstairs some has written “Eleanor help come home,” in massive letters on the wall. Eleanor is angry and scared and she hopes it’s a trick but if not then the spirit in the house knows her name. Theor starts acting like right bitch and accusing Eleanor of wantin attention but she’s just trying to stop Nell being frightened.
As the day goes on Markway gets more concerned with signs of how fragile Nell is and that night he asks Theo to sleep in Nell’s room. Nell objects but Theo assures it could be fun. And they send the time drinking and Nell paints her toenails. She does start to let her guard down a bit as she gets drunk. That night she hears sounds, muffled voices of a woman them a man scolding someone harshly and later of young child weeping. Nervously she grips Theo’s hand in the bed next to hers. She feels Theo’s grip tighten as the sounds of crying grow worse and Nell sit up and cries out for it to stop. Theo puts on the light but she is still in bed across the while Nell is on the now couch. With horror Nell wonders out loud about whose hand she was holding. This scene is the one that always gets me simply by the use of that creepy muffled sound and the reaction of Nell and the constant focus on a pattern in the wallpaper that looks like a distorted face then the payoff.
The following day Markway is making notes on a harp that’s playing itself but he doubts that it’s really supernatural. He makes a statement about scientists who denied existence of magnetism and I doubt that is true but then he is full of metaphysical mumbo jumbo throughout the film. Eleanor reads more into the conversation than Markway intends who was only trying to make her feel better. Later in the parlour Nell gets upset with Theo and runs off. Markway tell Theo to get her back and Nell bites back with a remark aimed at Theo being a lesbian.
A car arrives and it’s Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell) who is concerned that reporters have heard about what Markway is up to. Nell is not happy to find out Markway is married. Grace a compete sceptic about the supernatural and want to sleep in the most haunted part of the house. Markway denies there is such a place and no-one say anything until Nell makes a remark about the nursery. It is very petty and a moment later she tries to take it back but Grace is determined to sleep in the nursery
That night everyone else sleeps in the parlour. There’s a pounding sound again this time at the parlour door and then animal snuffling sounds. There’s a force on the door that causes it to bend in alarmingly. Then it sounds like whatever is in the corridor goes upstairs. Markway tries to get out the door to go up to Grace. But Luke stops him terrified of what could be out there.
Nell goes out another door and runs through the house hearing more noises like the house is falling apart. She follows the noises to the ursery and inside there is no sign of Grace. Markway want to find Grace and Theo and Luke want to leave immediately, Nell doesn’t want to ever leave. Nell wanders off unnoticed by the others until Theo looks for her. Nell has gone into the library and climbed most of the way up the rickety dangerous spiral staircase. Markway follows her up and stops her falling from the balcony. She gets another scare when a panel in wall opens and a very dishevelled Grace pops out before vanishing again.
Everyone is now determined to get Nell away from Hill House immediately much to her protest. Luke is going with her but when he gets out to get the key to the gate from Markway Nell drives off without him. As she drive the steering pulls out of her hands and she crashes into a tree at full speed and is killed. The others leave but Nell got what she wanted and her spirit will remain in Hill House forever.
This film may not have the gore or special effects that are commonplace in modern horror but still manages to put most of them to shame when it comes to the task of creating fear. This is one of my favourite horror films and I love what it achieves through the effective use of sound and the performances of the cast.
Rating 10 /10