(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill is a classic of the haunted house genre and a true horror masterwork. This 1959 motion picture was written by Robb White and was initially released in theatres with “Emergo,” a promotional gimmick that had a plastic skeleton drift over the audience at suitable moments.
With or without the floating plastic skeleton, House on Haunted Hill is essential stuff. It weaves a tale that is part psychological thriller and part ghost story, inspiring Alfred Hitchcock to take a swing on Psycho in 1960. Along with Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography and some eerie set design, Castle’s film manages to evoke a memorable degree of startling atmosphere.
Vincent Price stars as “eccentric millionaire” Frederick Loren. He’s invited five presumed strangers to a haunted house party and promises to pay them $10,000 each if they stay the entire night. The doors will lock at midnight. Loren is presumably throwing the party for his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), but it soon becomes clear that his marriage is less than idyllic.
The guests arrive are given guns for protection. Annabelle tells the guests that her hubby is crazy, while Nora (Carolyn Craig) starts to see “ghosts.” She runs to the arms of test pilot Lance (Richard Long), who always seems to be out of the room when the “ghosts” appear. There’s also the psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), who tries to come up with logical explanations for “hysteria.”
When one of the characters winds up hung from a rope in an apparent suicide, the suspicion in the house deepens. It doesn’t help that Watson (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is convinced that the house is really haunted because so many people were killed in it in the past. He starts boozing, which causes Loren and the others to dismiss his ramblings as mere drunk talk.
House on Haunted Hill opens with screams and darkness, which immediately sets the tone for what’s to come. There’s always an air of disquiet to the proceedings, but having Cook Jr.’s detached head float toward the camera to deliver a warning is some serious camp magic.
If there’s a glue that holds the whole thing together, it’s Vincent Price. His Loren is an absolute delight of snappy one-liners and sinister mood, plus his interactions with Ohmart’s delicious Annabelle are just hysterical. “She’s so amusing,” he says. And she certainly is, even if she’s just apparently after his coinage and even if he seems to be looking for a way to get rid of her.
There is, of course, a divine twist toward the end that spins the ghosts and ghouls of House on Haunted Hill into a fresh kind of madness. Far from being a cheap turn of events, it makes great use of Price’s subtle sneering and drives the film into whodunit territory.
Castle, who would dub himself the “King of Showmanship,” is in top form helming the swirling events of House on Haunted Hill and he plays the audience like a symphony conductor. Everything from the cobwebbed set design to the ridiculous skeletons to the severed heads is pressed into service for the ultimate thrills, with Castle keeping an even keel throughout the trim 75-minute runtime.
A horror classic that defies the passage of time, House on Haunted Hill is virtually flawless with its mix of acid baths, skeletons and party favours. Price is his delicious best and Ohmart is nearly his equal as his derisive but obscenely hot wife. And the party guests fill their roles as well, especially Cook, Jr. with gallons of sweat and booze to drown out the spirits and murder. It is one hell of a party.