House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2010-10-03 22:11

Written by: Robb White
Directed by: William Castle
Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, and Elisha Cook Jr.

Reviewed by: Brett G.

ďI am Frederick Loren, and I have rented the house on haunted hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. She's so amusing. There'll be food and drink and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders. You're all invited.Ē

One of the most universal experiences in all of horror is the haunted house film. Just about everyone has likely had some experience with that creepy house in the neighborhood that nobody dares to go near. Or, perhaps, a local carnival or amusement park had a funhouse attraction with mechanical ghouls looming around every corner. At any rate, there is something primal about things that go bump in the night in an old, dark house. Cinematically, itís one of horrorís oldest sub-genres, and itís one that was resurrected on more than one occasion by b-movie maestro William Castle. In 1959, Castle and legendary genre actor Vincent Price invited movie goers everywhere to a party at the House on Haunted Hill.

Frederick Lorren (Price) is a wealthy eccentric who is throwing a ďhaunted house partyĒ for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Ohmart). Heís thrown in an enticing incentive for the party-goers: if any of them manage to stay throughout the night, then they will receive $10,000 each. The titular house has a tormented history, full of demented tales of murder, as no less than seven people have met their grisly end there. As the witching hour approaches for our guests, spooky occurrences become more frequent: doors mysteriously close, chandeliers fall from the ceiling, and the ghosts of the long-dead victims begin to haunt the guests.

The haunted house of my youth was actually of the funhouse variety. My family would make an annual trek to the beach, which featured an amusement park; my favorite attraction there was the ďHaunted Hotel,Ē a neat little ride that featured the usual assortment of automated goblins and madmen. If there was ever a cinematic equivalent to that now defunct haunted hotel, it would be the original House on Haunted Hill. Itís a fun little thrill ride, full of b-movie spooks and gags that are still charming fifty years later. In many ways, itís the epitome of Castleís output and stands as a great representative for haunted house pictures. Itís become a favorite of mine over the years for its ability to perfectly capture the essence of a funhouse.

It does this because Castle places atmosphere at the forefront and uses appropriately creepy set-pieces to bring the house itself to life. One might as well call it the titular character, as it certainly seems to have a life of its own. The filmís opening monologue features the houseís owner referring to it as ďthe only really haunted house in the world,Ē as he recounts the houseís murder-laden history. Itís the perfect tone-setter because every haunted house needs a scary story behind it. The house doesnít take long to live up to its reputation--when we first get a glimpse of it, it is of course covered with cobwebs and bathed in shadows. The door shuts itself behind the guests when they arrive, which tells us that our ominous ride is about to begin.

House on Haunted Hill is mostly a visual affair, relying on Castleís use of macabre imagery and unsettling camera angles. The black and white photography makes great use of light and shadows and gives the house an eerie look. Thereís plenty of other morbid touchstones--the guests arrive in hearses, and each of them is given a gun thatís housed in a coffin. The ghouls and other thrills are realized in a low-budget fashion that actually feels very appropriate by the filmís end. The filmís most infamous sequence features a walking skeleton, an effect that was no doubt even more awesome in theaters. In typical Castle fashion, this sequence featured a gimmick that allowed a skeleton to fly over the heads of audiences with the help of an elaborate pulley system. Even when confined to two dimensions, this scene still stands as one of the coolest climaxes of any horror film.

The importance of Vincent Priceís presence canít be understated, of course. Itís a classic Price performance thatís both elegant and deranged. His velvety voice is typically disarming, and thereís a sort of regality that hides a more maniacal side. Priceís chemistry with on-screen wife Ohmart is especially effective, as the two trade sadistic barbs about killing each other. The twoís frankness is rather startling; for example, when Price pours a glass of wine, Ohmart assures him that she hasnít poisoned it. Later in the film, Price wonders aloud about how all men have contemplated killing their wives at some point. It sounds absurd, but it Price pulls it off with ease. The rest of the film is peppered with other effectively ominous lines for the cast to speak. Most of the best lines go to Elisha Cook, whose character owns the house; heís a paranoid, almost raving lunatic who feels right at home in the dusty old mansion.

As far as haunted houses goes, one can do a lot worse than the one here on Haunted Hill. Itís a great B-movie fright-fest thatís both clever and spooky, full of both ghoulish sights and haunting sounds (Von Dexterís score is a moody, b-movie complement). Interestingly enough, we should also thank the film for drawing the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who was then inspired to direct his own low-budget thriller called Psycho. The fate of each film has been rather disparate, and itís reflected by their home video status. Psycho, of course, has been a cash cow for Universal since 1960, while House on Haunted Hill fell into the public domain. This means itís readily available on dozens of releases and is likely already kicking around in most fansí collections. For my money, your best bet is to track down the Warner Brothers release from 1999. Despite being over ten years old, the presentation holds up well: the anamorphic widescreen transfer was taken from pristine elements that faithfully reproduce the filmís black and white photography. The mono soundtrack is a bit soft, but mostly audible. You can find this disc as one side of a double feature with the filmís 1999 remake as well. If youíve not ventured into this one yet, you owe yourself a visitÖthe ghosts of the house will be glad youíre there! Buy it!

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