The Haunting (1963)
Hill House has a tragic past, is reputed to be haunted, and is standing alone and empty. Dr Markway decides to investigate the building and recruits a psychic, Theodora, and a skeptic (and heir to the property), Luke. He also invites Eleanor - a lonely and insecure woman who has experienced something supernatural in her childhood. As the group experience disturbing paranormal events and learn more about the property's past, they also witness Eleanor's deteriorating mental state as Hill House starts to take over her mind.
The Haunting starts with an intriguing back story, and quickly builds tension and atmosphere in a number of simple yet effective ways. There's no gore here, no men in monster suits, and no cat scares. Instead the director relies on good storytelling and some incredibly effective sound and camera work. It follows the philosophy that what you don't see is far more frightening to your imagination than what you do. And it works brilliantly.
The female characters are particularly interesting. Eleanor (whose internal dialogue we also follow) becomes the story's unreliable narrator. Theodora is stronger, and confident in her sexuality, and adds a tension unusual for films of the time. But the most impressive character is Hill House itself, which because of the photography and set design, has an oppressive and evil feeling about it.
It's the kind of movie that benefits from more than one viewing. On one level it's a simple but effective ghost story. Yet on another, it's about a woman's escape from an unhappy life, searching for somewhere to belong, and her transformation along the way. It's also an important reminder that horror films don't need to rely on blood, guts or fancy special effects to be truly scary.