Tricks are Treats: Perspective through Camera Technique in THE HAUNTING
27 October 2013
Like so many horror films of its time, The Haunting (1963) is full of dramatic angles and equally dramatic cuts, which help to build tension in the chilling plot. Moreover, these cinematic techniques help the director transcend the characters’ fear of Hill House right onto his unsuspecting audience. Yet, The Haunting does not rely simply on the prepackaged horror movie shots and angles for its success; The Haunting dares to be inventive in its camera technique, and the film’s cinematic experimentation and creativity are why The Haunting remains, fifty years after its release, a fright-filled, satisfying viewers looking for a ghostly thrill.
One of the ways The Haunting explores less chartered ground, cinematically, is by experimenting with perspective. During climactic scenes, director Robert Wise frequently abandons omniscient perspective—which the majority of this film is told from— and, instead, forces the audience to experience the nightmare from the perspective of the character being tormented by the haunted house. In fact, Wise begins experimenting with this unique camera technique immediately in the film, and ultimately uses this experimental camerawork to pull off one of the film’s greatest sequences.
Take, for example, the first two deaths revealed, the first and second Mrs. Hugh Crane. The first Mrs. Crane travels to Hill House by horse and carriage, but, just as she is to arrive at the newly constructed mansion, a terrible accident occurs, causing her carriage to crash into a tree, killing Mrs. Crane on impact. The camera initially shows Mrs. Crane’s carriage as she approaches Hill House, meaning the audience is watching the action from an omniscient, or third-person point of view. However, as the accident occurs, that perspective changes, and the audience is forced to experience Mrs. Crane’s death from Mrs. Crane’s perspective. Wildly, the camera whips around the woods, chaotic and reckless, until movement stops all together. Then, as quickly as the point of view changed from omniscient to first person (Mrs. Crane), the perspective jumps back, returning the audience to their safer vantage point, unharmed yet jolted.
Moreover, the second Mrs. Crane’s death scene uses the same technique, but this time, arguably, the experience of first person point of view is even more intense. The second Mrs. Crane meets her end during a fall down the stairs of Hill House. At first, as with the previous scene, the camera captures Mrs. Crane, frightened, as she, unknowingly, backs toward the stairs. The point of view is omniscient because the audience watches the second Mrs. Crane, without her knowledge and from a safe perspective. Then, just as she trips and begins her backward plunge, the point of view changes again. All of a sudden the wild and reckless camera technique is back, and the audience is not watching a women fall down the stairs; the audience is the woman falling down the stairs. With a hard thump, the movement stops and the audience sees the living room fire-place of Hill House, upside-down. The fire-place is upside-down because the audience is still in the first person point of view. However, all is clarified when the point of view jumps back to omniscient and the audience sees that they way they have just viewed the fire-place is the way Mrs. Crane would have viewed it (had she survived), based on how she landed after her fall. The omniscient perspective shows the second Mrs. Crane contorted, on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, prostrate on her back, eyes open, neck protruding, gaping at the fire-place.
The camera technique of these first two deaths in The Haunting is experimental, and works successfully for the film because experiencing a death from the perspective of the victim is a jarring ordeal for the audience. Viewers are not only thrust around during the first person point of view because of the way it is filmed, but the unexpected jumps in perspective unnerve audience members who never know when they are going to shift from watching a character die to becoming the character as she is dying (she because all the deaths a Hill House are women…curious, but I digress).
As the film continues, the experimental perspective persists, unnerving audiences who are never able to fully prepare themselves for the dramatic change, and the wild camera work that goes with it. And, by the time the film begins its steady build toward a fright-filled conclusion, the most experimental of all camera work occurs. In the film’s most experimental, creative, and remarkable sequence, the camera does not jump quickly from omniscient to first person, and then back to omniscient again, as it did in the previous examples. Toward the end, an entire sequence is captured, one that jumps from several perspectives, which, unlike the aforementioned quick jolts into a new perspective, drags out the tension, creating even more fear in viewers.
As Eleanor, “Nell” (Julie Harris), slips completely under the spell of Hill House, or, perhaps, as her fragile mental state completely deteriorates, she finds herself lured to the dilapidated spiral staircase in the mansion’s library. Entranced, Nell envisions making her way up the staircase, to the very spot, a landing, where a Hill House employee hanged herself years back. Her fantasy is first person point of view, and the audience actually experiences climbing the stairs, just as the hanged companion did.
Committing to this daydream, Nell begins to climb the stairs, and this is where the sequence of multiple, shifting perspectives begins. One of these perspectives is Nell’s, and viewers see her feet climbing the stairs step by step, slowly and carefully. Another perspective is one the film’s dramatic high angles suggest all along, and this is the perspective of the presence/power that haunts Hill House. This perspective is captured by the camera being one step in front of Nell and facing her as she ascends the stairs; the perspective suggests Nell is following the force which possesses this point of view; the audience sees Nell from the perspective of the thing that lures her up the stairs. And, the last point of view is omniscient; the camera also cuts to the stairs falling apart. This final perspective is the safe or all-knowing one for the audience. In less than a minute, the audience is thrust between being Nell, being the antagonist force that threatens her, and being an onlooker to what could easily be her violent demise.
This experimentation in camera technique is different from the rest, as it transitions back and forth between three different perspectives, which is more than any other sequence in the film. The other experimentations in perspective were needed as a build to this one because this is a climactic moment in the film. Once the audience sees a first person perspective (Nell’s perspective, looking at her feet as she climbs the stairs), they are aware Nell’s end is near. But, because the film jumps back and forth in perspective several times, the first person point of view, which clearly signals death, is not continuous’ therefore, Nell’s death has been undeniably foreshadowed, but it will not occur now, on the stairs.
In fact, Nell survives the staircase, but, when trying to leave Hill House, or pretending to leave the mansion, Nell’s car is overtaken by Hill House’s presence and the first person point of view takes over too. At first the camera jumps between an omniscient look at Nell losing control of her car and Nell’s perspective in an uncontrolled, moving car. However, Nell gives in, succumbing to Hill House, and not longer trying to take back control of the vehicle. And, at that moment, the camera returns to the first person perspective as she crashes into the tree, the same tree that the first Mrs. Crane crashed into at the start of the film.
Experiment in cinema is essential to film’s longevity, and it seems clear that Robert Wise was interested in experiment. Yes, tight budgets are a sure fire way to get filmmakers thinking outside the box, but allowing room for creativity and originality, for whatever the reason, opens up the opportunity to create something unique and successful. The experimental camera technique in The Haunting, particularly as it pertains to point of view, aids in making this film more frightening to viewers because it, literally, makes them the victim of each death attributed to Hill House. Moreover, this inventive cinematic style is clever, and clearly made a mark in cinema, which subsequent filmmakers have attempted to replicate.