Vincent Price - Frederick Loren
Carol Ohmart - Annabelle Loren
Carolyn Craig - Nora Manning
Elisha Cook Jr. - Watson Pritchard
Richard Long - Lance Schroeder
Alan Marshal - Dr. David Trent
Julie Mitchum - Ruth Bridges
Genre - Horror/Suspense/Ghosts/Haunted House
Running Time - 74 Minutes
As I had mentioned in an earlier review for 1959's THE TINGLER, director William Castle knew how to promote his movies by presenting gimmicks that only worked for their respective films. THE TINGLER, which is about a creature that grows on one's spine and will kill its owner if they can't scream, used a gimmick called Percept-O - where certain theater chairs had devices that released shock waves onto those audience members whenever the Tingler creature would appear. Because of these crazy gimmicks, Castle would have huge successes on his hands. It also helped his films are usually good.
Prior to THE TINGLER's release was the release of the iconic HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Most people are probably more familiar with the 1999 remake [which I like quite a bit] and its 2007 average sequel. But the 1959 version of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is considered one of the best haunted house films ever filmed, and deemed influential in the horror genre. It was the first collaboration between Castle and star Vincent Price. It also had an interesting take on the 3D gimmick called Emergo! - which involved a fake skeleton "coming out" of the screen during the point of the film [at the end] where the skeleton emerges from an acid pit inside the house's cellar. It would hover over the audiences' heads, attempting to scare them. Sounds like a fun concept, and it actually helped make HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL a box office success.
Unfortunately, Emergo doesn't happen as you watch HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL at home. But unlike THE TINGLER, the gimmick probably doesn't enhance the viewing experience all that much. It's fine, since HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL still manages to be a good time after all these years, even if it isn't a perfect film.
Millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) has invited five strangers to join him and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) at a haunted house party in celebrate Annabelle's birthday. The incentive for these guests - $10,000 if they stay the night inside this House on Haunted Hill...and survive. The guests include a jet pilot named Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), innocent Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), drunk journalist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), and doctor David Trent (Alan Marshal). Trent, in particular, wants to test his theories on what trauma and fear can do on the human mind if the rumors about the haunted house are true. Also in attendance is Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who has spent a night in the house before and is afraid to be inside again due to the ghosts that haunt it.
As the guests roam the house, they encounter some strange phenomena that can't be explained or believed. They also have to deal with the tension between Frederick and Annabelle, who despise each other and seem to be implying each other's deaths. Nora, afraid for her life, decides to leave. But the doors and windows close by themselves, trapping all the guests inside. If this just a game? Or is this house really haunted?
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is considered by many to be William Castle's crowning achievement as a filmmaker, although I personally prefer THE TINGLER over this one. It's not a perfect film and is definitely cheesy and schlocky. But it's also a lot of fun, with cool moments that will make you jump or laugh, never boring you at all. Even without the Emergo! gimmick, the film succeeds for the most part.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was inspired by Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House - which would also later inspire 1963's THE HAUNTING and 1973's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. What could play out as a modern reality competition program on television, the guests intend to stay the night to win $10,000 [although each person has their own agenda as well] but have to face obstacles such as ghosts, guns, bloody ceilings, a bickering married couple, and an animated skeleton who rises from an acid pit in the cellar. It's like being in one of those funhouses at a local carnival, expecting weird things to pop up and disorient you at every turn. I won't really discuss the narrative any more than that, since I would be spoiling things if I got too much in depth with this film. So for those two people who haven't watched the original HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, you're welcome. I will say that the 1999 remake does play with the concept of the $10,000 survival prize a bit more, but the original is still a fun ride.
What really makes the film work are the characters. Nora, in modern horror terms, would be considered the film's Final Girl. She's innocent, naive, but sweet and good hearted as well. She also seems to be the main target of the ghosts in the house, probably due to her supposed pure nature. She's also the smartest one in the group, as she realizes she's way over her head and wants to leave the house, not caring about the money. Unfortunately, the house closes itself so she's locked in. But at least she has common sense. Lance, the jet pilot, is pretty much Nora's best friend in the house. He obviously has a crush on her and is the only one who is willing to believe her stories about seeing ghosts. He also catches the eye of Annabelle, which causes a tiny bit of tension between him and Frederick - although it's never really explored to add some needed drama between the characters. Ruth is a columnist who enjoys drinking, which aids her skepticism over the entire situation. She also has a puddle of blood dripping on her wherever she goes, which takes a while to gain a reaction out of her. Dr. David Trent is there to study the behavior of the other guests in terms of how they embrace fear. He also has a very personal relationship with one of the other characters that no one else is aware of, which leads to the fun conclusion of the movie. And Watson is pretty much the guy who's already been through the terror, warning the others about what's about to happen. He also likes to drink, as it helps him cope with the memories of what happened to him.
The best characters, however, are the Lorens. Frederick and Annabelle waste no time showing their lack of affection towards each other, having fantastic banter [the dialogue is really great for these two] and always implying murdering each other eventually. It seems Frederick sees Annabelle as a golddigging wife, while Annabelle sees Frederick as an easy means to a rich life once he's dead. Their relationship is the catalyst to the events that occur in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. The reason the guests are because of the couple due to Annabelle's birthday party. And Frederick seems to want everyone there, almost as if he plans on killing Annabelle and needs alibis. The entire relationship is twisted fun.
I do think the ending of the film is pretty lame though. The special effect moment is cool. The twist, while interesting, doesn't really work as well as it should since it comes out of nowhere. And the very end itself is just weak, in my opinion. It's as if the film didn't know how to end and relied too heavily on the gimmick. Everything before the final moments are effective, and the ending doesn't really match up to the level of anything before it.
The film is also very dialogue heavy. So those expecting a lot of ghosts and murder will probably want to look elsewhere. But when the spookier moments do appear, they're pretty cool. Ghosts pop out of nowhere, looking more hilarious than scary. The scene where a ghost tries to wrap Nora with rope from outside the window is pretty neat. The skeleton is cool looking for its time, and probably the most memorable "effect" of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. We also get a hanging, a bloody ceiling, people boiling in acid, and a decapitated head in a suitcase. So while there's a lot of talking, there are also those moments where you'll either be creeped out, or just enjoy while laughing at them.
The direction by William Castle is very good here. It's a black and white film [at least the version I watched - there is a colored version out there], so the film has to rely on a lot of shadows and light. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL succeeds in doing that visually, as the way certain scenes and objects are lit play a trick on your eyes at times. The pacing is pretty good and never feels long [it's only 74 minutes long]. There are cool "boo" scares and pretty creepy moments. There's also a ton of atmosphere that we don't really get in horror these days, which is what Castle always excelled at. The Von Dexter score also aids in the mood and tone of the film. I really enjoyed the visual presentation.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE USING THE $10,000 I WON FOR THERAPY
- Whoever stays inside the haunted house all night will be given $10,000 if they survive. I never got any money when I stayed over Neverland Ranch! What the hell? That pain was so not worth it...
- Frederick, although throwing his wife Annabelle a birthday party, hates her guts. Sounds like this marriage is just fine.
- Nora found a decapitated head in her suitcase. I guess Al Snow stayed there during a prior visit.
- Annabelle supposedly hung herself, which shocked the other guests. Ted Stryker must have told her about his drinking problem again...
- A skeleton rose from the acid pit inside the cellar. Um...Fatality?
THE FINAL HOWL