William Castle, 1959
Starring: Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Carol Ohmart
"It's a pity you didn't know when you started your game of murder that I was playing too."
Vincent Price stars in one of his most beloved roles as Frederick Loren, a millionaire throwing a birthday party for his wife, Anabelle, in a haunted house. He invites five strangers and promises to give them each $10,000 if they make it through the whole night in the house. The guests are all hard up for cash and include a brave, young test pilot, a journalist writing an article about ghosts, a psychiatrist who wants to study hysteria, and a poor young secretary who works for one of Loren’s companies. The fifth guest is Watson Pritchard, a paranoid alcoholic who owns the house and claims that a number of murders have been committed there and that malevolent ghosts wander the halls. Strange events kick off quickly and the pilot is hit over the head by an unseen assailant, Annabelle and Loren are clearly intent on murdering one another, and Nora, the young secretary, is frightened into hysteria.
While the plot is definitely a riff on Agatha Christie’s novel about people trapped in a house being murdered one by one, Ten Little Indians, there are a lot of fun elements that make House on Haunted Hill such a fun mix of camp and scares. In addition to the previous murders that we hear about at the film’s opening, the party favors are loaded pistols in tiny coffins, hearses bring the guests to the house instead of limousines, there’s a pit of acid in the basement, the servants are terrifying, there are secret passages, blood drips from the ceiling, and so much more, including some great plot twists.
Allegedly House on Haunted Hill’s success encouraged Hitchcock to make a horror film of his own, Psycho. Part of the film’s success was due to director William Castle’s love for gimmicks. With the theatrical release of this film, he unveiled a trick called “Emergo,” where a model skeleton on a pulley would fly over the audience during certain screenings. He and Price worked together on another gimmicky film, The Tingler, and Price is the center piece of both. As Loren he is charismatic, icy, and devious, cementing his trademark status as one of the kings of American horror.
Though Vincent Price absolutely carries the film, the other performances are a mixed bag. Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby, The Killing) is great as the drunk, paranoid Watson Pritchard, insistent that they are about to be torn apart by angry ghosts at any moment. Unfortunately his shtick gets a little old by the end of the film and it’s a shame that the script didn’t have him do something different, like get murdered or turn into a homicidal maniac. The beautiful, underrated Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby) is great as Loren’s venomous wife Annabelle and her scenes with Price are some of the finest in the film. She’s really the only actor able to go toe to toe with him in House on Haunted Hill and it’s a shame they didn’t work together more.
Test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long, The Stranger) and irritating shrieker Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig, The Giant) are the worst parts of this film. The one major fault of the script is that unlike several other ensemble horror films or horror comedies about people trapped in a house (And Then There Were None, The Old Dark House, Clue), many of the side characters are not fully developed and are simply unlikable. The cast is filled in by a hard drinking reporter played by Julie Mitchum (Hit and Run) and a double crossing psychiatrist (Alan Marshall, After the Thin Man).
There’s a lovely score from Von Dexter (what a name), who also worked on Castle’s The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. Screenwriter Robb White was another regular Castle collaborator and penned The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Macabre, and Homicidal, which possibly explains why this borrows so much from the equally delightful 13 Ghosts. The undoubtedly cheap, though excellent atmosphere comes courtesy of set designer Morris Hoffman. The exterior shots are from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis Brown House in L.A., which was an interesting choice over the typical old haunted mansion. It is an ugly and foreboding building that looks more like a prison than a millionaire’s abode. It also reminded me a little of Bela Lugosi’s bizarre house of horrors in The Raven (1935).
House on Haunted Hill was one of my first favorite horror films and I watched it repeatedly growing up. It comes highly recommended and is perfect for the Halloween season, preferably on a dark and stormy night. House on Haunted Hill is available in a number of cheap DVD editions, but maybe one day we’ll get a nice special edition Blu-ray release. William Castle is a wonderful figure in American horror and if you’d like to know more about him, check out his autobiography, Step Right Up: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America, or the documentary about him, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.