Tuesday, 1 December 2009

House on Haunted Hill

1959
Dir. William Castle

Eccentric millionaire Fredrick Loren (Vincent Price) has invited five carefully selected strangers to the house on Haunted Hill for a ‘haunted house’ party, much to the chagrin of his lusty wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). Loren promises to pay whoever stays in the house for the whole night $10,000 dollars. With no electricity, no phones and no way of contacting the outside world, the guests are locked in the house at midnight. As the night progresses, it becomes very obvious that this will be a night to remember! Ghosts, ghouls and murder – oh my!

Darkness. A woman’s scream. Creepy moaning. Rattling chains and creaking doors. A disembodied head ponders the restless ‘ghosts’ on the prowl. Nope, its not just another Saturday night in your local pub – it’s the opening minutes of William Castle’s lovably daft House on Haunted Hill; a clunky, if not thoroughly enjoyable ghost-train romp through every creaky, hoary old cliché in the book – stopping off only to thud into a few ‘old dark house’ conventions and marvel at some of the, erm, ‘special’ effects as it effortlessly works its way into your heart.

House on Haunted Hill is constructed as the cinematic equivalent of a fairground haunted house complete with pop-up ghosts, disembodied heads, vats full of acid, dangling rickety skeletons and disappearing bodies. Indeed, director/producer/mastermind William Castle is perhaps more famed for the gimmicky promotional ploys he utilised to accompany his films, than for his actual films themselves. He is the man responsible for dreaming up publicity stunts such as offering audiences ‘life insurance policies’ in case they died of fright during Macabre (1958); he also wired theatre seats with electric buzzers to mildly ‘shock’ audiences at appropriate moments throughout The Tingler (1959). The now legendary gimmick that accompanied House on Haunted Hill was known as ‘Emergo’ - a large fake skeleton attached to a wire that was winched across the movie theatre during key moments in the film, such as when a skeleton appears to rise from a vat of acid and ‘menace’ Carol Ohmart.


The film begins with introductions all round (Castle is nothing if a splendid and considerate host). The guests arrive at the house in a spooky convoy of funereal cars– the sight of five hearses slowly winding up the Hollywood hills is a memorable one and sets the morbidly gimmicky tone immediately. Hunky lug Lance (Richard Long) is a test pilot, opinionated Ruth (Julie Mitchum) is a gossipy, liquor swilling gambling-addicted columnist and Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) is the drunken schlep who seems to know quite a bit about the house’s sordid history and slurs stuff like ‘Only the ghosts in this house are glad we're here’ throughout proceedings. Shifty looking shrink Dr Trent (Alan Marshal) and impressionable and demure Nora (Carolyn Craig) complete the group of eclectic guests. The characters aren’t given much to do throughout the film, except Craig, who runs around screaming a lot and Schroeder, who has to come to her rescue. The acting borders on downright hammy, however the sincerity and conviction of all involved keeps events ticking over nicely. A couple of well oiled ‘jump’ moments prove reliably effective (one in particular gets me every time) and some of disembodied heads are actually pretty gruesome.


The spooky atmosphere is enhanced by suitably vintage organ music that instantly evokes the kind of creepy old ham-fisted horror films that House on Haunted Hill is one of. The rather striking looking house used for the exterior shots has a bizarre modernist feel – with architecture that falls somewhere between 50s kitsch and Aztec Temple. It doesn’t resemble the usual ‘traditional’ haunted house at all. Until we get inside. Things become much more familiar then, with their spookily swinging chandeliers, secret passageways behind curtains/bookshelves and cob-webbed filled basements, which despite the creepy vibes that emanate from them, people still insist on ‘checking out.’

The plot twists and turns, and then twists and turns again, ensuring events are never dull.

Vincent Price is on top form as the decadently suave and sophisticated Fredrick Loren, throwing himself into the role with the all the melodramatic relish you’d expect; though he actually plays down his customary theatrics in House on Haunted Hill, ensuring Loren remains a dubious character we are never really sure about. Of course we ARE sure about him and by the final reel our instincts are proved right, as sure enough, he is revealed to be a seductively menacing and diabolically scheming individual who plotted the WHOLE thing! And he would’ve got away with it too, were it not for those pesky kids. Sorry. Wrong outrageously diabolical scheme.
He and the ravishing Ohmart (in another variation of her ‘conniving bitch’ role from Spider Baby) exude untrustworthiness and are clearly having a ball in the scenes they share – taking swipes, barbed retorts and verbal clumps out of each other.


Although he claimed to have been influenced by Alfred Hitchcock – Castle’s own directorial efforts were nowhere near as taut, effective or well constructed. His direction throughout House on Haunted Hill is quite unremarkable, though to be fair, he gets the job done in a rudimentary enough fashion. The film falls into a casual and repetitive stride almost immediately, with Carolyn Craig running into a ghoulish situation in a dark room, screaming hysterically, running back to join the others only to have them patronise and disbelieve her stories while Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart spit their vitriolic lines at each with vindictive relish. Lather, rinse, repeat.

House on Haunted Hill is steeped in an irresistible nostalgia and it consistently proves immensely entertaining and even more endearing every time I watch it – its perfect viewing fodder for those dark, wet and windy winter evenings; and works equally well on a Sunday afternoon if that’s how you like to watch your old creaky horrors films.

A deliciously morbid, delightfully camp and full-blooded romp-fest that never fails to entertain every time it’s wheeled out of the crypt and plonked in the DVD player. Hoorah!

6 comments:

MrJeffery said...

Great review! Love this film.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I am often afraid I will not 'get' classic Horror, and unfortunately I never got HoHH, it was too goofy and gimmicky for me over the years, but it is also a film I always want to reproach to find something I may have missed. Thanks for the thoughtful review and I will be sure to come back to this one shortly!

James said...

To be honest Carl, there's really nothing to 'get' - its just a fun, corny old movie with some memorable moments, ludicrous twists and VINCENT PRICE! What's not to love? It is goofy and gimmicky to be sure - but for me, thats part of its charm. ;)

Matthew Coniam said...

Vincent always seems to be having so much more fun in Castle's films than in Corman's. This one is an absolute treat, and your delightful review has sent me back to it again tonight. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Watching it now on a Sunday midday with my son, hoping he will come to appreciate old cinema. Vincent Price is priceless!!

James Gracey said...

Hope your son enjoyed it!