PHILOSOPHY: What Can a 49-Year-Old Ghost Story Tell Us About Craftsmanship?

Craftsmanship never goes out of style, and the "democratization" of filmmaking is no reason to get sloppy. Here's a quick look at one of my favorite movies, in which NOTHING happens by accident.
Art Adams
By Art Adams 09.22.12

Craftsmanship never goes out of style, and the "democratization" of filmmaking is no reason to get sloppy. Here's a quick look at one of my favorite movies, in which NOTHING happens by accident.

"The Haunting" (the original 1963 version, not the appalling 1999 version) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Every time I see it I notice something new. I watched it most recently on the plane returning from IBC and decided it's time to draw a little attention to it--particularly to a couple of scenes that, in a nutshell, show the kind of planning that went into this film.

I love haunted house and time travel movies, and not too long ago I realized what they had in common: there's an underlying structure that is initially hidden to the viewer but that is gradually revealed as the movie progresses. At the beginning of the film we have no idea why events are unfolding as they are, and because of that they seem strange and terrifying: we are most afraid of what we don't understand, and events that occur out of context are most terrifying of all. By the end of the film, though, we understand the context, and while we can't always predict what will happen it all makes sense in retrospect.

Time travel stories generally unfold this way, with events only making perfect sense in hindsight. The manipulation of time hides from us the underlying structure of the story until the very end. Ghost stories do the same, but the structure is not hidden by a fictional attribute of physics but by the invisibility of one, or more, of the characters, each of whom move with purpose through the story but whose actions and motivations we can only briefly glimpse.

One of my favorite non-ghost story films is Atom Egoyan's "Exotica," in which a host of characters weave their way through seemingly unrelated story lines until the latter third of the movie, when their lives come crashing together. It's a film that you must let wash over you, because trying to make sense of it from the beginning only results in frustration. The film requires that we trust it, and that all will be explained. "Exotica" does this spectacularly, delivering bombshells right up to the very last frame.

"The Haunting" is a different kind of film. Whereas we have no reason to believe that a film like "Exotica" is going to require a bit of effort from the audience until we see it, we know that ghost stories will demand our patience. The tension behind the average ghost story lies in events that we don't understand and that are not under obvious control, but that have an underlying purpose and motivation. If only we can discover what those are we can take a stand against the invisible and set the world right again. The enemy is not only the hidden consciousness that bedevils the protagonists; time itself is an enemy, as our heroes must spend precious minutes, hours, days or years deciphering the puzzle behind the events that befall them in the hope that they can save themselves, or others, before time runs out.

This film's storyline is simple, and has been used successfully in at least one other film ("The Legend of Hell House"): a scientist gathers a small group of psychics, and at least one or two skeptics, to investigate a "genuine" haunted house in the hope of discovering that the spirit world exists. The movie centers on four characters: Eleanor ("Nell"), a reluctant psychic without a home; Theo, a clairvoyant whose status as a social outsider gives her a unique perspective on people and events; Dr. Markway, a well-meaning scientist who ends up paying a terrible price for knowledge; and Luke, the self-absorbed playboy who stands to inherit the house and whose strongest trait is that of self preservation.

What I love about this movie is that nothing in it happens by accident. It's not often that one sees a sketch artist credited in the opening titles of a film, and it's clear that this person was very busy indeed. The director, Robert Wise, started his career as an editor (his early credits include a somewhat familiar title--"Citizen Kane") and it's clear that he knew how every shot in the film was going to play against the other. Rather than simply shoot coverage and figure out the rhythm of the scene later, he knew exactly what he needed to tell the story, complete with occasional single shots for punctuation.

I've found several scenes from the film online at the American Movie Classics website, and as they seem to have permission to host these clips I'm going to use them as examples of what I call "intentional filmmaking." As the cost of making a film plummets it's increasingly important for new generations of filmmakers to discover that telling a good story cinematically does not simply mean documenting events; instead, good films are handcrafted with intent and purpose, and with layers that reveal themselves both over the course of the film and with repeated viewings. The layers aren't necessarily hard to create, as they all relate back to the theme of the movie and the inner lives of the characters, but one must do a lot of homework to create these layers of meaning without being obvious and amateurish about it. The writer and director must know their film very, very well.

Cinematography plays a key role in the telling of this tale. This short scene happens toward the beginning of the film, when Nell and Theo try to find their way to the parlor to meet their host, Dr.Markway. They quickly find themselves lost, and Nell--the one character without a home, and with no real place in the world--is almost swallowed by the house.

The scene begins simply enough. We see Eleanor walking down a dark hallway, and at first we think she's alone. Theo enters the frame, checking doors and expressing her frustration at being lost. Film schools often teach that scenes start with a "master" shot that shows everything, but often it's much more interesting to show a smaller part of the scene and then open up the setting from there. A scene that starts in closeup builds tension because we don't know the complete story: events are unfolding but we don't know the context, and as human beings who are driven to make sense of the world we are quickly drawn in simply because we don't know what's happening just outside the frame. As the scene unfolds and our view of the "world" gets bigger the tension is somewhat released, although often the tension inherent in the scene itself takes over.

The classic example of this is a scene where a phone rings, and all we see in the frame is the phone and a tiny bit of the background. We may or may not know immediately who answers the phone, or where they are, but this is revealed in time--sometimes later in the scene, and sometimes later in the movie. It's okay to make the audience question what they are seeing as it keeps them more engaged; the caveat is that all questions must be answered eventually.

At first Nell and Theo appear in the center of the frame, either together or in single shots. Compositions happen both in space and time: not only do elements relate to each other within a shot but they relate to each other across edits. By keeping Nell and Theo in the center of the frame tension is lessened because our eyes don't have to move around the frame across edits, but as the scene progresses the distance between them increases...

It's interesting to see how Eleanor and Theo start out apart, then come together, drift apart, come back together, and then drift much farther apart...

...until the house finally tries to devour Eleanor. (This is a theme throughout the movie: divide and conquer.)

The shot where Nell is nearly lost to the house starts out normally enough but quickly takes on a frenetic, awkward motion--it's a weird, disturbing take on handheld camerawork--before she's saved by a sudden shaft of light from an opening door.

That high shot of the opening door, by the way, isn't just "coverage." It's one shot designed to do exactly what the story requires: it saves a character from doom, at least for the moment. It's punctuation, not happenstance.

Also, note how Dr. Markway's entrance changes the mood of the scene considerably. Movies have rhythms, but so do scenes: maintaining one mood all the way through a film, or even a scene, can make it a bit tedious--which is why horror and comedy go so well together. One builds tension while the other relieves it, and that rhythm makes the scene much richer and more interesting. It's a bit like a roller coaster: in between the bouts of screaming there are moments of peaceful ascent that break the tension. The ride would be a bit less fun if it was all screaming, all the time.

"The Haunting" is not just a great film from a cinematography standpoint; it's also a textbook example of subtext. Subtext is the hidden and often unconscious motivations and wants of each character revealed through acting and dialog. It's what the characters mean, in spite of what they say. It's the "actions speak louder than words" portion of the story. Human beings say an awful lot about themselves through their choices of words, habits, gestures and social interactions, and while all this happens spontaneously in real life very little of this should happen accidentally in a feature film. Part of telling the story is knowing who the characters are, what they want and what they'll do in reaction to the events they face. Some of that comes through when Eleanor is almost swallowed by the house: part of her is terrified, and part of her wonders if this is what she really wants.

The actual swallowing is done through the judicious use of frenetic camerawork and a trick of light. Cinematography plays a hugely important role as well--in this case merging with the character of the house for a dramatic beat.

Let's look at a second scene on the next page...

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