House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Director:  William Castle
Studio:  William Castle Productions
Starring:  Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Alan Marshal, Richard Long
Tagline:  See It with Someone with Warm Hands!
MPAA Rating:  NR
Genre:  black and white, haunted house, thriller, mystery, drama, ghosts
Scare score:  C
Rating:  C

Plot overview:  The very rich and very strange Fredrick Loren (Price) and his unsatisfied wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) decide to host a party in a supposedly haunted house that they have rented.  The group of five guests – none of whom knows each other – is told that they’ll each be paid $10,000 to come; what they are not told is that they have to survive a night in the house first.  Among the guests is the home’s owner and drunkard, Watson Pritchard (Cook), who keeps the others frightened and irritated all night as he tells them about the various murders that have occurred in the house, as well as the ghosts who now roam the vast halls.  While pilot Lance Schroeder (Long) and the hardworking Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) are attacked and frightened, respectively, in the basement, psychiatrist Dr. Trent (Marshal) keeps his calm and tries rationally explaining the night’s strange occurrences.  When disappearances and deaths begin to plague the small group of party guests and their hosts, they must discover what evil is truly lurking in the house on haunted hill.

I remember liking this film as a kid, but having re-watched it I can’t say that I’m impressed.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  The blood-curdling screams in pitch black at the beginning of the film set such a tone of horror, and if I ever make a horror movie I will utilize this same tactic.  Shortly thereafter we are introduced to the annoying floating head of the paranoid Pritchard (who is equally as irritating when the rest of his body joins him and together they spend the film in the form of Elisha Cook whose mediocre acting makes us wish the angry ghosts would come get him).  Luckily the Merchant of Menace and all around Granddaddy of Horror, Mr. Vincent Price, soon takes over the narration and sucks us into the classic plot of a group of strangers brought together in a scary house for an unknown reason.

The other actors are decent, although it’s tough to judge ’50s style actors on modern standards.  Long provides us with a typical Cold War era manly-man who keeps his head on the whole movie, whereas Craig treats us to a scream in at least 3 different octaves since her character Nora suffers the most throughout the film.  I also liked the dynamics between Price and Ohmart as man and wife in a murderous matrimony.

All the filming is pretty good and enjoyable.  From a hearse at the beginning to a scary basement at the end, the audience is at the very least given a creepy setting.  While one might expect a haunted victorian, we are instead provided with the outside shots of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in L.A. which is a strangely modern, imposing structure made out of concrete.  The inside of the house is equally massive, with long hallways, endless closets, and gothic decor to boot.

The scares that are often thrown at us during the movie are fun, and I’m sure there are people out there who would still scream or jump.  One of the scarier “ghosts” at the beginning of the film is the ugly old woman who seems to float in and out of the basement closets.  I don’t like that we see her again later and learn her identity, but not why she was acting all weird in the cellar.  That’s fright for the sake of fright (surely shocking audiences at the time) and not so practical as far as plot is concerned.  On the plus side, this old lady might be the only reason why I even gave the film a C for scare instead of anything lower.  Obviously this film made marks with “Emergo,” in which some audiences had a skeleton depend upon them during the appropriate scene.  Part of me still wishes movie theaters did things like that, even if it’s a little cheesy.  Lastly, the severed head prop seems to surprise us when we least expect it, but luckily for those who scare easily, it still looks like, well, a prop.

Fun fact: The skeleton in the film is listed in the credits as portraying “Himself.”  What jokesters!

Final critique:  While campy, House on Haunted Hill left its mark with a famous plot and good ideas, thus joining all of our favorite black and white horror classics.  The script, scares, and general horror is a little too outdated for modern audiences, but if you’ve seen the 1999 remake you know exactly how Hollywood would (and did) update the original.  The best thing this movie has going for it are the discomforting and frightening screams throughout.  This movie deserves a big bowl of popcorn, a chilly October night, and a small group of friends to watch it.  Recommended for the weak of heart (easily frightened), and not for those with a short attention span.