House On Haunted Hill (1959) [31 Days of American Horror Review]
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Director: William Castle
Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Elisha Cook, Carolyn Craig, Alan Marshal, Julie Mitchum, Richard Long
“Don’t let the ghosts and the ghouls disturb you.”
“Darling, the only ghoul in the house is you.”
While far from classics, William Castle’s series of independently-produced horror films are rarely anything other than massively enjoyable and this early entry in the series is no different. In fact, House On Haunted Hill is a contender for the gimmick king’s finest hour.
After testing the water with 1958’s Macabre, Castle stepped it up a gear with a traditional haunted house yarn, peppered it with an ensemble cast that are nearly if not all interesting characters and a regular production line of jump scares to keep the audiences glued to their seats. Oh and an actual floating skeleton in the theatre to buzz overhead. Just to be sure.
As a supposed gift for his wife Annabelle (Ohmart) millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) invites five strangers to spend the night at a party in a supposedly haunted mansion, promising $10,000 to any of them who can survive the night.
Annabelle has her own agenda though and plans on murdering her possibly-unhinged husband to take all of his money, not just what he has already offered her to leave him. Working with her secret lover, Dr. Trent Marshal), she had concocted a scheme to frighten one of the guests, Nora Manning (Craig), into shooting him.
There’s much more going on in the house than one murderous plan though and by the time dawn breaks, not everyone will still be left alive…
Right from the portentous intro that sees Pritchard and Loren’s floating heads setting the scene, House On Haunted Hill feels less of a film and more of a funhouse experience. The scares are basic, textbook numbers, laid out in rote for the audience to encounter, with some being more effective than others. Even watching it 60 years after it was released without the in-house gimmickry, it still feels…gimmicky.
Does that matter though? Well not massively, not when there’s as much to sit back and enjoy as there is here.
First and foremost, it sees the great Vincent Price heading up a strong cast. He’s a real joy here as always, clearly relishing playing a character who is all cold, barely-contained malice. With his eyebrow in a permanent state of being arched with cruel amusement, his Frederick Loren is clearly an awful human being, quite literally playing games with people’s lives for his own entertainment.
His toxic relationship with his wife Annabelle (his fifth no less) is the heart of the film and makes for genuinely unsettling viewing at times. The pair absolutely loathe each other and it’s made clear she’s tried to murder him at least once already. His feelings towards her are no less extreme, forcing her to attend this darkest of parties in her honour with a sinister smile on his face. He’s not afraid to let the mask slip either, yanking her hair back to remind her just who is the boss here. It’s that dance between them that’s so enthralling though, at once sexual and violent, with both plotting the other’s doom as they politely skirt around the issue, while leaving absolutely no doubt just what they are suggesting. It’s riveting stuff from both actors and frankly, belongs in a much better film.
Carol Ohmart really needs singled out for praise here too, not just for holding her own in those numerous two-handers with a powerhouse like Price, but for nearly stealing every scene she’s in. There’s a real talent there, one that combines with her icy beauty to create a real screen presence that is another huge factor in why House On Haunted Hill rises so far above its limitations.
Of course such strong performances wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact of they weren’t built around some effective scares. Now we’re not talking The Haunting here, or anything close to it. William Castle’s film is designed for spooky fun, not to disturb or unsettle.
Saying that, the emergence of a hideous, white-haired old crone is a genuine show-stopper and is up there with any jump-scare in horror cinema up until that point. Even now, knowing it’s coming, it’s still nigh-on impossible not to physically jolt as that horrific face fills the screen.
Other than that, the scares are much more obvious, but Castle administers them with an obvious glee that overcomes any shortfall in real menace. Falling chandeliers, severed heads, hanging bodies, ghostly apparitions, the horrific hits keep coming and they’re barely a respite before the next one hits you over the head with its comedy scare-mallet.
It’s all great fun and has you captivated right up until the end. Well, nearly the end. Some great work is undone by an unnecessary plot twist that just feels a stretch too far, meaning it all ends on a groan and not one well-deserved last scream.
Still though, as haunted house films go, House On Haunted Hill might not be the best, but it’s certainly one of the most fun.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy
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