House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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The finest compliment I can extend to House on Haunted Hill is how it manages to exemplify many of the tropes we have come to imagine in old horror movies of yore even without having seen one. Because the hallmarks of the genre, by some curious form of cultural osmosis, have been passed down through the generations. Rather than a blank slate, an entire history of preconceived notions serves you well since many of us do not have the benefit of the former.

Much like Psycho (1060), we have some vague sense of what we have consigned ourselves too before we’ve begun. In fact, the low budget success of director William Castle’s picture is said to be behind Hitchcock’s own impetus to make a low budget horror flick. It, of course, paid absurd dividends at the box office. But now for House on Haunted Hill which proved successful in its own right.

In the very nature of its quintessential campiness, this haunted mansion seems to have just about everything. We are met with shrieking screams in the night and for someone like me who partook through in-home viewing, we have to use our imaginations in order to fully appreciate what a pitch black theater and surround sound would do to the nerves.

Because House on Haunted Hill is very much about a created atmosphere both architecturally with the facade of the house in exterior shots and then interiors which though obviously shot on sound stages, develop the ever-present eeriness handily. The soundtrack as well is an integral component with creaking doors, the liberal use of the theremin, and of course, a blood-curdling scream sprinkled throughout every now and again.

Our first introduction comes in the form of the disembodied heads of first Elisha Cook Jr. and then our host. While the memorably flighty actor preaches a message of spooky legends, Mr. Vincent Price comes in to recount how he and his wife decided to throw a little spend the night ghost party.

With the trademark condescending lilt of his voice, he introduces his guests and blandly acknowledges how amusing his wife, Mrs. Loren, is for planning such an affair. However, it really does seem like he had a major hand in it, providing an incentive to each guest of $10,000 apiece if only they manage to stay in the building alive through the night.

Whereas his wife Annabelle (Anna Ohmart) seems generally lukewarm about the gathering, he seems strangely obsessed with it. A bedroom encounter sets up just how dysfunctional their relationship is hinging on dueling strains of jealousy and avarice. What makes it delightful is the playful threats embedded in their jousting. They are cajoling each other constantly but there’s also something sinister lingering behind their words.

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The guests themselves are wide-ranging. Watson Prichard is called upon to make the festivities more chilling. The rest of the continent include a dashing airline pilot (Richard Long), a distinguished psychologist (Alan Young), a local newspaper columnist (Julie Mitchum), and lastly a young secretary (Carolyn Craig) employed in Mr. Loren’s company. What ties them all together is their desperate need for cash even if some veil their intentions behind personal preoccupations.

Their welcome is hardly cordially as they let themselves in and have a moment to get acquainted and get accustomed to their surroundings — hardly a place of gaiety and warmth. Finally, Mr. Loren makes his entrance. By now, we know his relationship with the missus is a troubled one but that is privileged information.

For the time being, he leads the guests on a tour of his recently acquired property as Prichard recounts tall tales of severed heads of his ancestors among other legends. Ceilings dripping blood and a basement complete with a trapdoor leading to a vat of acid are two of the most harrowing attractions.

But Mr. Loren relishes to make the occasion interesting and after his wife makes a stunning appearance he passes out the party favors — in the form of handguns.  They aren’t much use against spirits so one must gather they are to fend off humans. It’s a startling twist to the proceedings though he doesn’t give much explanation for such a deadly gift.

Everyone decides to lock themselves away in their rooms. Easy enough right? Wrong. Because Ms. Nora Manning seems especially susceptible to scares at the hands of horrible creatures lingering in the shadows. They frighten her out of her wits and she races around looking for some friendly face. Only time will tell what other hideous unspeakable acts she will witness.

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But House on Haunted Hill has far more human origins than we might initially suspect. It’s not just a pop out at you scary movie. Though the atmospherics are a large part of the allure, there is also an underlying motive to all we see. It provides a crucial tie back to the real world and the people assembled.

So, in the end, it works best blurring genre lines between mystery, ghost story, and a tale of murder. It’s served by elements akin to Diabolique (1955) as much The Spiral Staircase (1946) though admittedly catering to the B-grade crowd. Mind you, that’s not meant to be an insult because in its own right House on Haunted Hill is a ghoulish delight.

Although I have to admit I couldn’t help but smirk when Vincent Price’s skeleton came alive again, it is soon tied back to something rational we can comprehend. The movie plays all these pieces as parlor tricks as much as supernatural acts. And this melding makes the dividing line between the two blurry. It could be everything Watson Prichard spouted was the truth. Then, again, it’s not hard to believe everything was a fabrication utilized solely for human gain. Because everyone in this picture wants something. This is important.

As per usual, it’s hardly difficult despising Vincent Price’s characters. However, in some paradoxical way we like him for the sardonic edge. Because he holds undying scorn for just about everyone. It’s so very easy for him to turn into a parody of himself but then again in a genre such as horror so often prone to parody, it rather works to his advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

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