There is a place called Hill House built in the 1870s in New England that has caused the death of all those who have owned it and lived in it. A researcher in the paranormal, Dr. John Markway, has gotten permission from the present absentee owner to stay in the house and investigate its behavior. Markway hires two women, Theodora, a psychic and Eleanor, a neurotic woman who attracts supernatural activity, to help him detect the supernatural activity there. In addition, the owner has designated her nephew Luke Sanderson to be present as her representative.
Eleanor is more or less the protagonist of the movie. She has led a tortured existence having spent eleven years as the caregiver for her invalid mother. Becoming involved in the paranormal research seems like her chance to escape from her dreary existence and strike out on her own.
Theodora is a lesbian and she takes an immediate interest in Eleanor. But it’s obvious that her attentions annoy Eleanor. Eleanor on the other hand seems attracted to Markway who unbeknownst to her is married. Luke is the scoffing skeptic who finds the whole idea of a haunted house laughable.
During the first day nothing notable happens but during the night the two women hear very loud and frightening pounding on the walls and at one point the doorknob in the room they’re in starts to turn. The men had been outside chasing a dog that seemed somehow to get in the house on its own and had heard nothing. On the second day Eleanor has several sensations caused by supernatural presences. She is especially overcome by a horrible smell coming from the library where, as it turns out, one of the owners had hanged herself. That night more noises and voices are heard.
Next day, Dr. Markway’s wife Grace shows up. Eleanor is crushed when she realizes that the man she’s been interested in is married. Grace announces that she will sleep in the nursery, the room where the eeriest happenings were known to have been centered. While she is upstairs in her room the rest of the party is downstairs when the pounding starts again. But this time things get out of hand. Whatever is making the booming noise is also able to push against a thick wooden door and bow it in as if some inconceivable weight or pressure was being brought to bear. As soon as it ends Dr. Markway runs upstairs to find how his wife is, but she’s gone.
Meanwhile Eleanor runs into the library and climbs an extremely dangerous metal spiral staircase to the top of the forty-foot tall room with the intention of throwing herself down in order to become a permanent part of the ghost community. Markway risks his life climbing up the tottering staircase to stop her. Rather than go back down the stairs they open a trap door to the attic to escape their predicament. And at that moment Grace Markway sticks her face down the trap door from above and scares Eleanor into a fit.
In the next scene Markway has decided that the whole experiment is a mistake and orders Eleanor to leave. He will continue to search from Grace who has somehow eluded them again. Eleanor begs desperately not to be sent away. She feels she belongs in the house. But Markway is adamant and he is sending Luke with her to make sure she returns home. But at the last second Eleanor drives away without him and heads down the long driveway. But some force takes control of her car and eventually she crashes the car into a tree and dies. The others reach her car and find her dead. Grace has been wandering around and happened to be right at the scene of the crash. The consensus is that Eleanor got her wish and will stay with the house.
In the last scene we’re shown a nighttime view of the house while Eleanor’s voice talks about being part of the ghost community there.
As far as haunted house movies go this is probably the best one until The Shining was made in 1980. That’s not to say that the film and the characters aren’t extremely annoying, because they are. Eleanor is a thoroughly neurotic and unpleasant personality. The others are tolerably less annoying than Eleanor but none of them is going to win any personality contests.
All that being said, the movie does have an atmosphere of foreboding about it and the sights and sounds do produce the desired effect of creepiness. Without a doubt the spectacle of frightened isolated women does effect a movie audience powerfully. If you’re looking for a good haunted house movie it’s this or The Shining.