Sunday, November 21, 2010

Caution: do not read after midnight

It's become a Halloween tradition for me to watch Turner Classic Movies' lineup while I pass out the candy and eat my dinner. They always show terrific old scary movies. This year, I watched the majority of "House of Wax" and caught the end of a really old one where Vincent Price played a deranged magician and set himself on fire at the end. But next up was "The House on Haunted Hill," which I'd just caught the Rifftrax/Mystery Science Theater version of not four days earlier. I took a break from the scary movies and came in on the last half hour of "The Haunting." It was super-scary, though, and I went to the library the next day to get both the film and the book versions.

Both were terrific. Both are still extremely scary, despite the movie being 45 years old and the book being closer to 60. And both are psychological thrillers. There's no gore whatsoever.

The story is the tale of a party of four, come to research supernatural phenomena at Hill House one summer. Luke Sanderson is the spoiled playboy heir of the opulent, creepy home. Dr. Montague is the academic who put the whole thing together. Theodora and Eleanor are two very different women who were selected from a pool of people by Dr. Montague that had been associated with past supernatural phenomena. Theodora created a sensation by participating in an experiment where she sat in a room and tried to guess which card a researcher was holding up in a separate room. She guessed nearly all of them right. Theodora is outgoing, fliratatious and funny.

Eleanor is the opposite. When she was a child, a storm of rocks fell on her home, and only hers, for days. That was the last interesting thing to happen to the repressed 32-year-old woman. She spent most of her adult life controlled by her invalid mother, waiting on her slavishly. Had it not been for the invitation to Hill House, she probably would have spent the rest of it under the thumb of her sister. And it's her that the house ultimately wants as its own.

The four start out on friendly terms, enjoying one another's company, gently mocking the creepy caretakers and playing chess and bridge. As the house begins to work on them, they begin to quarrel more. It has a strange, unpredicatble effect on them. It doesn't merely scare the shit out of them. That would be too obvious, too simplistic, and would raise the question of why they don't just leave. Their nights fill with terror, but their days fill with euphoria and peace, leaving them to doubt what happens at night, and to doubt one another.

The differences between the book and the original film are not huge. (I have yet to see the remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor). I was hoping for a bit more backstory on Hill House in the book, as they give you just enough to pique your curiosity. The character of Dr. Montague's wife is probably the largest difference. In the movie, she's a skeptic who gets sort of kidnapped by the house. In the book, she's an avid psychic researcher, but of a different sort, fond of using a planchette and telling the spirits how much she loves them and how she is their friend. They both leave me craving more, and both like to replay in my head when I wake up at 4 a.m.

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