The Haunting (1963)
At the heart of nearly every Gothic horror movie is a towering, sinister edifice of some kind, going all the way back to Georges Méliès’ 1896 silent short, Le Manoir du Diable, known in English as The Haunted Castle and widely considered to be the first horror film. Of course stories set in evil or corrupt houses stretch back centuries, so it’s hardly shocking that such settings were a major part of horror cinema since the beginning as well. Still, 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story) and from the celebrated Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, marked a major shift.
That’s because, unlike previous haunted house pictures which were often placed in period settings, The Haunting takes place in the present (or at least how it was in 1963). Its four main characters—a paranormal investigator, a troubled young woman looking to escape her dreary life, a chic, sexually free lesbian psychic, and the entitled young man who has come into great wealth—are all modern-ish. And the abode itself, Hill House, while dark and menacing on the outside, is brightly lit on the inside. Nevertheless, it has its share of secret corners and forbidden places.
The tormented woman at the center of the story, Eleanor (Julie Harris), is manipulated by the house almost as soon as she enters, and Wise does a brilliant job of not only keeping the audience off-balance, but never once letting us see what exactly is haunting Hill House. Darkness does eventually encroach on its inhabitants, and the house looms over the movie’s finale like something rising out of a nightmare, making it to this day the gold standard of haunted house movies. – DK
House of Usher (1960)
It was only a matter of time before one of the masters of Gothic literature, the legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe, found his way to the big screen. And it was through an unlikely source: Roger Corman, a B-movie producer and director known for churning out cheap black-and-white exploitation fare geared toward drive-ins. Corman did a lot of his early work for American International Pictures (AIP), who decided to take a risk on a (relatively) larger film, in color, based on one of Poe’s best-known short stories.
The result was such a success that Corman directed seven more pictures in what became known as the “Poe cycle,” but House of Usher set the template. Drenched in glorious color and morbid atmosphere, the movie was a cut above Corman’s and AIP’s previous efforts and a turning point for Gothic horror movies as well. The movie follows Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) to the title edifice, where his fiancée Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) lives with her brother Roderick (Vincent Price). No sooner does Winthrop arrive than the spectral Roderick informs him of his disapproval of the couple’s marriage plans: all members of the Usher family, Roderick claims, are eventually afflicted with madness, and he wants the curse to end with him and Madeline.
A ruined, ghostly, isolated mansion, mysterious maladies, an obsessive and unhealthy family dynamic, a ghastly premature burial, insanity and murder — these were all elements from Poe’s fiction that became standard trappings of Gothic horror movies, but House of Usher and Corman’s subsequent Poe adaptations infused them with a new level of psychosexual dread and fatalism. Vincent Price’s doomed Roderick was one of his greatest performances, and both the screenplay by Richard Matheson and cinematography by Floyd Crosby solidified the mood that Corman was trying to evoke — a mood that would linger through succeeding films and beyond. – DK