House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted HillSynopsis: The doors are locked at midnight!

William Castle’s gimmick-laden horror thriller is a fairground fun house come to life. Vincent Price stars as a suave, eccentric millionaire married to a beautiful and greedy gold digger. Together, they are hosting a party in a sinister haunted house. Five guests are invited to spend the night and each will get $10,000 – but only if they survive until morning. The doors are locked at midnight. Will you make it out alive?
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House on Haunted Hill (1958) 7.25

eyelights: the playful concept. Vincent Price. the way the exposition was inserted in the picture. the hokey scares.
eyesores: the lack of logic. the facile development.

“I 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.”

When one thinks of Vincent Price, one immediately thinks of him as a scream legend. What’s astonishing is that, until the late ’50s, he had been in very few horror films. In fact he was already a twenty-year screen veteran before he began to find success in the genre, first with ‘House of Wax’ and then five years later in ‘The Fly’ and ‘House on Haunted Hill’.

Price was an extremely insecure actor who was always concerned with being out of work, even when he was at his busiest. This lead him to make imprudent decisions, perhaps even hampering his career in the end, as he began to take questionable parts in low budget pictures just to keep working. This would take him further from the mainstream and more serious roles.

It is said that he made ‘House on Haunted Hill’ precisely for that reason. He had been turned down for a part on the day that he met producer-director William Castle, and immediately signed on for two pictures with Castle, who was only just starting as an independent producer after a decade and a half with various studios, and had just had a massive hit with 1958’s ‘Macabre’.

During that time, William Castle built a reputation for gimmicky theatrical showings. For ‘Macabre’, for instance, he arranged to have a one thousand dollar life insurance policy certificate given to each ticket buyer in case they should die of fright during the showing. For some screenings, he also had ushers dressed in surgical garb, with ambulances waiting outside.

For ‘House on Haunted Hill’, he had plastic skeletons wired to fly above the audience at key moments. This gimmick was called “Emergo”. For his follow-up film, ‘The Tingler’, also featuring Vincent Price, Castle devised “Percepto!”. This consisted of having cinema seats wired with devices that would vibrate at key moments during the screening to startle audiences.

‘House on Haunted Hill’ was a massive hit, and it cemented Castle and Price’s reputation as masters of the horror film genre and remains a favourite of their fans. It was such a success, in fact, that it is said that this is what inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make his own low-budget horror film. Filmed and released a little over a year later, the result was ‘Psycho‘.

For all its success, William Castle’s film, unfortunately, is nothing of the same caliber as The Master of Suspense’s masterpiece. For starters, it was made on a fraction of the budget that Hitchcock’s film was made on. Mostly, however, it depends on cheap scares, has a convoluted plot filled with gaps of logic and features an only moderately talented cast.

But, what it lacks in flair, it makes up for in devilish fun.

The premise is simple: an eccentric millionaire sends invitations to five unrelated individuals for his wife’s haunted house party. They are given an incentive to participate: if they stay the night, they will each get ten thousand dollars in cash – a small fortune by 1958 standards. However, should they leave before midnight, they leave without a penny.

What he doesn’t tell them, however, is that there have been multiple murders in the house through the years. It is only upon their arrival (in a staged funeral cortege, no less) that they are told of the house’s history by its owner, a visibly disturbed and well-imbibed nervous Nellie. It’s only then that he reveals that the total fifty thousand will be divided between the survivors.

To say that ‘House on Haunted Hill’ is campy is an understatement: its first few moments consist of a blank, black screen and nothing but the sounds of screams, screeching chairs, ghoulish voices, and creaking doors. Immediately after setting the tone, a disembodied head comes out of the darkness to introduce us to the house, in a disconnected tone. Chilling.

It also serves up a vast array of hokey thrills, such as a bleeding ceiling, an acid pit, doors that close and lock mysteriously, ghostly apparitions in the doorway, a gruesome decapitated head, a stranger appearing out of the shadows, door handles being jiggled, an organ playing by itself, a creepy hand reaching around the corner, and many other such scares.

Not exactly sophisticated stuff, but it’s satisfying in its own way.

What I like the most, beyond the core concept is the way that they establish the characters and the plot: through the opening lines by the disembodied head, an intro by Frederick Loren (Price) where he describes the concept and the guests, the guests’ exchanges, a bitter dialogue between Loren and his spouse, and when Loren addresses their guests, it all gradually fills the story for us.

What I like is that it doesn’t feel entirely artificial, unlike most exposition that we find even in the best films today. In this context, it makes sense that the guests introduce themselves to each other, that the Lorens fight over the way the party is unfolding, and that, as Master of Ceremonies, Loren has to explain everything to the guest and, by extension, us.

From that perspective, the writing is more clever than you’d imagine. Granted, it’s contrived, but this is entirely in keeping with the setting and core conceit. Unfortunately, the screenplay takes a few tumbles when it tries to introduce various twists to keep the audience on edge. In those instances, one gets the impression that the writers were negligent. Or not very bright.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Firstly, there’s the notion that Lorens rented the house for this party, but is disapproved of by the owner, who is one of the five guests. Why would the owner rent the house to them if he doesn’t think the party should take place? And why was he invited? One could suppose that he rented it because he needed the money, and that he was invited to rattle the others with his stories. Maybe.

Then there’s the small matter of why the Lorens are still married. Okay, I get that she is waiting it out so that she can get his whole fortune, but why is he staying with her? He intimates that he is biding his time until she slips up. But why? Was it so difficult to get a divorce in 1958? And, if so, why doesn’t he just separate? What can he hope to achieve in waiting as he does?

However, those are easily dismissed with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. But nothing can explain away the first truly blatant lapse of logic: Why in the world is there an acid pit in the basement of that house? Who dug that pit? Who brought all that acid? And what would be the long-term intention of putting one there? I understand digging a pool in the backyard, but this?

The worst comes when Loren’s spouse fakes her own death, hanging herself above a staircase:

  • If there was nowhere for her to jump and hang herself, how was she propped up? And how could she/they do it so swiftly so that no one would notice?
  • When she is found out, she could later excuse this stunt as being part of the soirée’s haunted house theme. But two of the guests confirmed her death. How did she pull that off?
  • If she was propped up, how was taken down with no one noticing that she wasn’t actually hanged? She was wearing a brace and this would have been most apparent.
  • When she pulled the stunt again to scare the bejeezus out of Nora, how did she escape her room, where she was supposed to be dead, and hang herself again without anyone noticing?
  • How did she get away, after Nora’s screams filled the house? Surely this would have alerted the others and made her escape impossible…

Then there is the matter of her plot to kill her husband:

  • The plot is tenuous to start with: put Nora on edge so that she would mistakenly kill Frederick. Good luck with that. When people are afraid, they don’t act as one might expect.
  • Since the doctor is her lover, and is involved in this plan, wouldn’t they be suspicious of the fact that Frederick invited him to the soirée? After all, all the guests were supposed to be total strangers, people he barely knew. So why pick him then, of all people? If I was conspiring to kill someone and they suddenly pick me out of a hat to go to a party, I’d be on my guard. Nope. Not these two. They just go ahead as if there’s nothing to worry about. The poor saps.

And that’s just for starters…

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Let’s face it: ‘House on Haunted Hill’ is no masterpiece. But it’s a fun ride. It’s silly, goofy fun, enough so that it has been blessed with a RiffTrax live commentary in recent years (more on that very soon). It also has a pretty decent atmosphere, giving it a lot more replay value than most films of its ilk. Plus which it’s got Vincent price in it – always a plus.

Would I recommend it? It depends on what mood one is in. For something inoffensive and easy to watch, this works; it can played to ten-year-olds and seniors without a worry. Naturally, for something grittier, more intense, this is one house that’s not worth visiting. It’s not all that scary, it’s not very gruesome, and there’s little physical or psychological violence.

But it is a classic. And that alone might make it a must-see for some.

“It’s almost time to lock up the house and then your party will really begin. I wonder how it will end…”

Post scriptum: The picture was remade in 1999 and a sequel was spawned from that remake. Neither were well-received, nor are they considered cult or camp classics. They’re largely forgotten now. But we may visit those houses someday. Stay tuned.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 6.5
Production: 5.0

Chills: 3.0
Gore: 2.0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: September 28, 2014

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