“i re­mem­ber it all be­ing a good laugh. it was re­ally just a laid- back at­mos­phere”

SFX - - The haunting - (

John­son. “He was all about the tim­ing. He knew ex­actly when an ac­tor had to come in and hit their mark – or when they were just to be to­tally si­lent. This was a movie about some­thing un­seen – and Robert was al­ways plot­ting how the cam­era was go­ing to in­di­cate that we were in peril. He didn’t want to show any­thing. It was all to be left to your imag­i­na­tion. He said to me, ‘ You just re­mem­ber your lines, and make sure you get to the right spot on the floor. Just leave ev­ery­thing else to me.’ The less you do, he felt, was bet­ter – and I put my full con­fi­dence in him. That is the nub of it, I think – less is more. The au­di­ence de­serves some­thing spe­cial – they don’t need to be fed ev­ery­thing.”

Au­di­ences in 1963 – who had just thrilled to Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Technicolor tale of an­i­mal insanity The Birds – did not flock to The Haunt­ing. It was a mid­dling suc­cess for MGM ( just fail­ing to gross back its es­ti­mated $ 1.5 mil­lion bud­get). To­day, Wise’s clas­sic is fre­quently rated as among the great­est genre out­ings ever pro­duced. Martin Scors­ese and Steven Spiel­berg have both named it as their all- time favourite frightener – while a 1999 re­make ( above right), from Jan de Bont, was rightly crit­i­cised for re­plac­ing ten­sion and ter­ror with ex­ten­sive CGI wiz­ardry. De­serv­ingly, it re­ceived only Razz­ies. John­son main­tains he has never seen it (“Why would I do that?” he chuck­les).

Nev­er­the­less, the ac­tor’s role in The Haunt­ing would, strangely, lead him into a new di­rec­tion in his own life. As the years went on, and this unas­sum­ing chiller gained in both fans and crit­i­cal feed­back, John­son would find him­self in de­mand from – of all places – the Ital­ian hor­ror world. Ten years af­ter The Haunt­ing made its de­but, the ac­tor would add a touch of cred­i­bil­ity to Be­yond The Door ( 1974), a hugely prof­itable Euro­pean Ex­or­cist spin- off, and take on the main roles in such spaghetti gore- fests as The Night Child ( 1975), Is­land Of The Fish­men ( 1979) and Zom­bie Flesh Eaters ( 1979)… hor­ror movies and I thought, ‘ Well why not? I don’t need to de­fend mak­ing th­ese films. And if it does not work out I can go back to the theatre when­ever I wish.’ I was very lucky in that re­gard – and, any­way, I en­joyed mix­ing it all up. I was hav­ing a great time and I re­alised that I was a very lucky man. I was young and fancy free – and th­ese tal­ented Ital­ian di­rec­tors were go­ing to look af­ter me like I was a piece of very rare well- cut glass. I was also go­ing to see the world, meet some won­der­ful and in­ter­est­ing peo­ple… well, what is not to like about that? We shot Zom­bie Flesh Eaters out in the Caribbean with first- class ac­com­mo­da­tion. And it is my hor­ror films that peo­ple re­mem­ber – over ev­ery­thing else. So, clearly, they have stood the test of time.”

Now aged 87, John­son re­mains on his toes ( when SFX speaks to him, his lat­est drama – Ra­di­a­tor – has just won a nod for Best Pic­ture at the an­nual Glas­gow Film Fes­ti­val). Charm­ing be­yond words, the good- hu­moured Es­sex- born per­former re­tains his hu­mour and his wits – but be­moans the fact his age means that good roles are few and far be­tween…

“It is hard now to be my age and to do a movie,” he sighs. “They don’t write many parts for men in their eight­ies, un­for­tu­nately. But I still get to work and I love it when the fans men­tion th­ese old movies to me. They live on and that is a won­der­ful le­gacy to have.”

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