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