HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

  • Director: William Castle
  • Writer: Robb White
  • Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmert, Elisha Cook, Carolyn Craig, Alan Marshal, Julie Mitchum, and Richard Long
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with library apps Hoopla and Kanopy, Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

House on Haunted Hill was our featured movie for our first Watch Party here at Movie Valhalla, and we had a great time with it. Thank you to everyone who watched with us! We’ll definitely be doing it again soon. I do think everyone had a good time with the movie, too. It’s very silly, there’s no getting around it, but it does a remarkable amount despite clearly spending essentially no money. Half the movie takes place in the rather dingy upstairs hallway of this house, and yet its very entertaining throughout.

William Castle and Vincent Price are two of the titans of mid-20th Century horror, and House on Haunted Hill is probably their best known collaboration today. Some actors chew scenery, but Vincent Price chews his lines. No actor in history has been able to give the word “murder” more syllables. His little mustache does a lot of work in this movie. Castle earned a reputation as the king of the gimmick. He released House on Haunted Hill with the advertising that it had been “shot in Emerg-o!” This apparently literally consisted of a skeleton on a rope and pulley in the theater that would be basically thrown at the audience at specific moments in the movie. 3-D, it ain’t, but it did the job. This movie was a big hit.

In the opening of the movie, a series of characters drive toward the titular house, each described leeringly by Price’s voiceover. Each has been offered $10,000 by Price’s eccentric billionaire character, Frederick Loren, if they will spend a full night in a supposedly haunted house owned by the nervous, drunk Pritchard (Elisha Cook). None of them know each other. Loren’s fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmert) is also there, glowering at him. The two of them are fairly openly trying to kill each other, though as one of our partiers pointed out, it seems almost like they’re just acting out a weird fetish. One of the party-goers, Nora (Carolyn Craig), keeps seeing ghosts, though the psychologist guy keeps saying she has “hysteria.” Nora is the sort of woman who runs up to the nearest man and asks him to “hide” her. Hide yourself, woman! There’s a random decapitated head. One guy ends up stuck in a wall. Everyone is given guns, to shoot the ghosts with, of course.

I’m not going to spend time with the plot of this movie, which the movie insists makes internal, logical sense but I’m fairly sure doesn’t. What you need to know is that at the climax of this movie, a lady gets pushed into a vat of acid by a very flimsy-looking living skeleton, and the movie is 100% serious about this. And yet, in its grand guignol insistence, the movie brings you with it. You may recognize the exterior of the house, it’s the Ennis House in LA, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and has appeared in many different movies over the decades. It looks like some sort of possessed Mayan pyramid on the outside, but all the interiors were shot on soundstages that look like a fairly standard Victorian mansion, with the possible exception of the vat of acid in the wine cellar.

Castle directed a long series of campy horror movies around this time, many of which were big successes. He never seemed to tire of coming up with bizarre gimmicks. For another collaboration with Price, The Tingler, about monsters that latched onto people’s spines, he fitted one random seat in each theater with an apparatus meant to give the person sitting there a tingling spine during the movie. I’m sure that was super safe. For Homicidal, he offered re-funds to anyone who left during the movie because it was too scary. After he decided that too many people were taking advantage of the policy, he instituted a caveat that those leaving had to stand in “Coward’s Corner” while a theater working exhorted the audience to “look at the coward!” In the late 60s he decided he wanted to transition to more “respectable” movies and produced Rosemary’s Baby (in which he makes a brief cameo). However, though the movie was a big success, he suffered kidney failure the day after it’s release, and spent the next few years back on b-movies until he died of a heart attack in 1977.

Price, meanwhile, had been the king of B horror movies since sometime around 1953’s House of Wax, the first movie in 3-D to make a dent at the American box office. Actually, his first horror movie had been 1939’s Tower of London with Boris Karloff. He spent his long career being basically up for anything, which included an occasional role in an “A” movie, usually as a villain, like in The Ten Commandments, where he plays the cruel Egyptian head builder, but also included plenty of stage roles, narration roles, whatever he thought was fun. In 1981, he played Grover in a stage musical version of The Monster at the End of This Book, which I cannot picture at all. He was also very active in LGBT causes well before most of Hollywood, especially after his daughter came out. He was among the first celebrities to participate in anti-AIDS PSAs in the early 80s, for example.

It is easy to watch House on Haunted Hill from sort of a Mystery Science Theater perspective, and we certainly did crack wise a lot during our Watch Party. But it hasn’t stood the test of time because it’s bad, it’s stood the test of time because it’s so much fun. If you’re able to deal with what we now see as silly camp cliches, like doors opening on their own with loud creaking noises, then it’s actually pretty effective as a sort of Halloween-y romp. It understands what’s fun about horror, and it does those things, and then it leaves. That’s all I could ask for, really.

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