I reported in a post written four weeks ago that Shirley Jackson had taken her inspiration for the mansion in The Haunting of Hill House (1959) from the Crocker House of San Francisco, designed by her great-grandfather Samuel Charles Bugbee. Today I am returning to Jackson’s novel to discuss the role of production design as a narrative tool in its two film adaptations: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), and the eponymous film 1999 by Jan de Bont (which is not a remake but a new adaptation of the novel).
All haunted house novels have the same problem: they are always incomplete because readers need to see what makes the place so scary. Readers may satisfy their curiosity by searching for an image of the actual house that inspired the author, if there is any in particular. Or see the film adaptation, again if there is any in particular. Description is hardly ever sufficient, though at least Jackson has a character comment that Hill House is so unsettling because there is not a single right angle in it, and so the whole building is askew. I had already seen Wise’s and de Bont’s versions a long time ago, but not back-to-back and this has seen a very interesting exercise in approaching film adaptation from the perspective of production design.
For those of you who do not pay attention when the Oscars in the technical categories are handed out, the production designer is responsible for the overall look of a film, whereas the art director is in charge of implementing the designer’s vision. Together they provide the film’s scenography, which is also complemented by the costumes and the sound design, apart from the special effects and, of course, photography. The same production design can look very different depending on how the photography director lightens the set and captures it on film.
In general, production designers are taken for granted, which is paradoxically a sign that their job is well done. From the historical films set in the past to the science-fiction films set in the future, passing through the films set in the present, the role of the production design is to provide characters with an environment that makes their actions plausible. If you are wondering, the top production designer ever must be Cedric Gibbons, who won the Oscar 11 times our of 39 nominations (both figures are records); he also designed the figurine for the award. If you’re curious you may take a look at the rest of Oscar-award nominees and winners here. This year’s Oscar went to the German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front (production design by Christian M. Goldbeck and Ernestine Hipper).
Production design is important in all film genres, but it is no doubt a major narrative tool in horror films. Images of mysterious buildings, dark spaces and old furniture and decoration surely come to mind, though master moviemaker Stanley Kubrick managed to use well-lit spaces to horrify audiences in The Shining (production design by Roy Walker, novel by Stephen King). In Tobe Hooper’s remarkable Poltergeist (production design by James H. Spencer) a cookie-cutter ordinary suburban home haunts an all-American family, with the ghosts manifesting their presence through mundane elements such as the television set (that was before Hideo Nakata’s Ringu!) and the walk-in closet.
Jackson’s Hill House is a Victorian construction and, as such, is it full of clutter which creates all kinds of shadows, though, above all, what makes her mansion frightening is its sheer size (characters often get lost navigating its fifty rooms) and elements that do not really depend on the specific type of architecture: the house has a cold spot, the doors close without human intervention, loud noises are heard in the night. The two adaptations by Wise and de Bont ignore the park, the nearby wood and the creek described in the novel, making the setting even more claustrophobic. Both coincide in using for the exterior shots English country houses, using for the interior shots sets built in a studio.
Wise’s film had a moderate budget, of a little over $1 million, and had to be shot by contract in black and white, a limitation of which cinematographer Davis Boulton made the most. The exterior corresponds to Ettington Park, in Warwickshire, a High Victorian country house by John Prichard, which is actually a remodelling (made between 1858 and 1862) of a much older manor. If you’re curious to visit, Ettington Park is now a hotel. Apparently the film’s stars Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, and part of the production team, were lodged there during shooting but did not care for the place very much. Wise asked Boulton to make the house look as menacing as possible, which he did using infrared film stock. Wise has always cited producer Val Lewton as his main inspiration, but I think it would be unfair not to mention Lyle R. Wheeler’s work as production designer for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a film in which Maxim de Winter’s mansion Manderley is, as happens in Jackson’s novel with Hill House, yet another main character.
Ettington Park had been chosen by Wise’s production designer, Elliot Scott, who built the sets for the interior shots in a mixed Victorian-Rococo style at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. Unlike what could be expected in a horror film, Scott’s set are mostly brightly lit and have no dark corners, though, unusually, they have ceilings, which increases the general claustrophobia. You will have to see the film, available on Archive.org, to get a precise idea of Scott’s work for, oddly, the images available on Google are mostly dark. The effect he went after was of eeriness rather than downright repulsion, as there is nothing overtly creepy in his sets. Eleanor, the protagonist, even tells housekeeper Mrs. Dudley that the whole house looks well maintained, and she tells herself that although the furniture looks ugly, it is comfortable. This rather cosy atmosphere works better than simply going for old, derelict spaces as too many haunted house films do. Interestingly, years later Scott was production designer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Labyrinth, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and, his last movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Critics and spectators agree that Wise’s film is much superior to de Bont’s, which seems to have been doomed from the beginning. Steven Spielberg was the original director, and Stephen King the script writer, but their creative differences put an end to their collaboration. King, a great fan of Jackson’s work, had borrowed her haunted house premise for The Shining and borrowed it again for the miniseries Red Rose. De Bont, who had directed Speed and Twister, was having problems with Minority Report and Spielberg swapped projects with him. In the end, Spielberg, one of the producers, was so dissatisfied with The Haunting that he withdrew his name from the credits.
De Bont’s film has a rather low rating at IMDB (just a 5, in comparison to Wise’s 7.4), which seems to me unfair but also understandable. Neither film, Wise’s or de Bont’s is really horrific and I marvel at how often the 1963 film appears in the list of best horror films ever (Jackson’s novel is not that scary, either). However, Wise’s film has a conceptual and aesthetic coherence totally missing in de Bont’s film, a problem that has to do above all with the questionable work of Argentine production designer Eugenio Zanetti.
Wise’s script writer Nelson Gidding failed to persuade Jackson to accept his view of her novel as a sort of hallucination by the mentally ill Eleanor, but kept flashes of his vision in the script, so that the doubt lingers as to whether she is the originator of the phenomena all witness. De Bont’s scriptwriter David Self linked instead Eleanor to Hill House as a direct descendant of local magnate Hugh Crain, and turned him into a child predator that she vanquishes to hell. I happen to like this version of the plot because in fact Jackson totally neglects to explain what exactly is haunting Hill House (hence Gidding’s astute reading), but whatever subtlety Self’s script may have had, it is destroyed by Zanettit’s totally over the top sets.
For the exterior takes, De Bont used Harlaxton Manor, an old English building with a Medieval pedigree which is today the British campus of the University of Evansville. Built by Anthony Salvin and William Burn using old-fashioned Jacobean and Elizabethan styles for the façade and Baroque decoration for the interior, it is a monster of a building, which totally dwarves Ettington Park and hardly needs any photographic effects to look overwhelming. Zanetti used its sumptuous Great Hall as one of the sets for the film, but he employed $8-10 million (out of a budget of $80 million) to build the rest inside a gigantic hangar in Long Beach, California.
Zanetti, a reputed production designer with an Oscar under his belt for Restoration (1995), misused that money to build sets which are simply too big and too extravagant. Self incorporated that impression into the script by having one of the characters quip that the house looks as if Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, had met The Munsters. Kane’s Xanadu mansion (production design by Van Nest Polglase) was based on the castle built by Julia Morgan for newspaper magnate Randolph Heart, a monument to this man’s ego and bad taste. It seems clear that Zanetti had either Kane or Hearst in mind, but the addition of the avalanche of Gothic detail gives his designs a camp air too close, as noted, to The Munsters. Phil Tippet’s quality special effects use well the abundant statues of children and the massive doors that seem to be a portal to hell, but on the whole Zanetti’s designs fail to provide Jackson’s story, or Self’s script for that matter, with the required plausibility, taking into account the film’s horror codes; hence its failure.
In short, whereas in Wise’s film Scott’s production design calls attention to itself without being intrusive, in de Bont’s version Zanetti’s work calls attention to itself in the wrong way, by preventing Hill House from being believable as a real location. Throughout the film, we are uncomfortably aware of watching the characters interact in what is clearly an overblown film set, and this kills the film. There are reports of the constant discomfort of the actors and the reluctance of the film crew to stay on once darkness fell, but I guess this is all publicity to try to infuse the film with a claustrophobic atmosphere it never has.
I have not seen Netflix’s series The Haunting of Hill House, the third adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, though from what I read it is very different in plot from its source. I hope, however, that my post has called your attention to production design and that now you have a few more elements to judge whether the work by production designer Patricio M. Farrell is satisfactory. Do let me know what you think.