Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Horror Classic 47 of 50: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL


In case you're keeping track, there are just 3 horror classics left in my 50-movie DVD set after this.

Like last week's The Bat, House on Haunted Hill was released in 1959 and stars Vincent Price. Unlike The Bat, however, House was directed by William Castle, a horror flick master with a flair for gimmicks. The flamboyant director played by John Goodman in the underrated 1993 movie Matinee was largely inspired by Castle. I thought for sure I had already watched one Castle film in this DVD set, but as I look over the archives it appears I was mistaken... All the more reason to look forward to this one, then.

According to various online sources, Castle's gimmick for the theatrical screenings of this film was called "Emergo," and it involved a glow-in-the-dark skeleton swinging out over the audience at a scary, climactic moment of the movie, a trick that was perfect for House on Haunted Hill, but which would be notably less effective if used with movies like Steel Magnolias or Brokeback Mountain.

Now, try not to get too scared as I tell you about the movie:

Synopsis
Vincent Price is Frederick Loren, a creepy rich guy who's planned an unconventional all-night "party" in an effort to amuse his disenchanted wife, Annabelle. He's invited five strangers to spend the night in a big, scary house. If they manage to make it until morning, they each get $10,000. Personally, I'd rather earn $10,000 by winning on America's Funniest Home Videos.

The guests are Nora Manning, who is skittish; Lance Schroder (what a name!), a test pilot; Ruth Bridges, a columnist; Dr. David Trent, a doctor; and Mr. Pritchard, who is simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the idea that the house is probably haunted by the ghosts of seven people who have been murdered there in the past. Annabelle is also lurking around, but she doesn't really feel much like socializing.

The plan is for the house's caretakers to lock everyone in and leave the building at midnight, but while they're waiting for the witching hour, Mr. Loren gives his guests a tour, during which blood drips on Ruth, Lance is hit on the head by an unseen assailant, and Nora comes face to face with a hideous ghost! So the house IS haunted! Except the blood might be paint, and the hideous ghost is actually the caretaker lady. Yikes.

By the time midnight rolls around, Nora is so spooked she wants to leave. That's partly because of the bloody, severed head she finds in her suitcase. (I'd be more upset about it touching my toothbrush than anything.) But it's too late! The doors are locked! And then the party really gets rolling: Annabelle Loren thinks her husband is trying to kill her, everyone gets a gun as a party favor, Lance finds the severed head in his closet, and some other scary things happen.

Man, what a crappy party. Not even a game of naked Twister could lighten the mood in this place. What could possibly make this party worse? What about Dr. Trent finding Annabelle's lifeless body hanging over the staircase? She's positioned too high for it to be a suicide, which means somebody in the house killed her! Was it the obvious suspect, Mr. Loren? Or was it... G-G-G-G-G-G-GHOSTS?!

Is It Scary?
Heck yeah. As was true of The Bat, there are no huge, lumbering monsters, but the floating spectres and other ghastly goings-on effectively gave me the creeps.

My Favorite Lines
  • Frederick, to Annabelle: "Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?"
  • Frederick, to the increasingly agitated Pritchard: I've had enough of your spook talk! Get out, you sot, and don't come back into this room again!"
  • Frederick, to the two characters who conspired against him: "It's a pity you didn't know when you started your game of murder... that I was playing too!"
Lessons I Learned
  • It's quite easy to stage a haunting.
  • Blind, elderly, crazy-haired character ladies get around by hovering rather than walking.
  • Acid left in a vat in the basement will still be there, and still be effective, decades later.
Body Count
Two. More or less.

Comments:
While this film is not a well-regarded piece of movie history like Nosferatu or Night of the Living Dead, or even a respected cheap horror movie like Carnival of Souls, I think it can genuinely be considered a classic. I would even go so far as to recommend it. It was competently executed, and the scares really worked. I may seek out more William Castle films... It's too bad I can't see them in theaters equipped with SHOCK-O-RAMA or whatever.

The movie begins with a black screen, and then there's a woman's BLOOD-CURDLING SCREAM! It's a pretty effective way to kick things off and set the tone.

• This is like the 800th movie in this "horror classics" DVD set to take place in a really old, really big, really spooky house. I wish I had created a label for that way back at the beginning. Oh well.

• I don't want to give everything away, so I won't say too much, but there's a scene involving a window and a rope that strains credibility.

• The closing credits listing the cast included "Skeleton - By Himself." That's nice to know. I thought maybe the skeleton had been played by Hedy Lamarr, or President Eisenhower.

• Remember that summer when the remake of this was out in theaters at the same time as The Haunting, which was a remake of The Haunting of Hill House? I saw The Haunting, which was quite terrible, but I never saw the Haunted Hill movie. Did anybody? Was it any good? Did Geoffrey Rush make an effective Vincent Price?

Letter grade for House on Haunted Hill: B. Are these movies getting better or am I getting more generous?
Next film in the 50-movie set: The Last Man on Earth. Gee, do you think he's met the Last Woman on Earth?

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Hey Ryan, I watched the remake of House on Haunted Hill as soon as I saw the Vincent Price one. It's not entirely the same story but it's a great watch as a popcorn horror movie, and it's worth it just to see Geoffrey Rush's character "Vincent".