House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Cover of "House on Haunted Hill"
The second film in our William Castle Weekend is House on Haunted Hill from 1959.  I could have done these in order and put this before 13 Ghosts but I consider this to be the superior film and the best is saved for last (of the weekend).  House on Haunted Hill is the go-to haunted house film second to The Haunting.  Where the latter film aims for a psychological approach this film is all about the bumps in the night and the scares inherent in the house itself.  There’s nothing in anyone’s head despite the claims of the psychatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) chalking everything up to hysteria.  Sure Castle borrows a lot from this film for 13 Ghosts, including the opening credits sequence, but the scares jump out more and the acting is better across the board….that doesn’t mean you won’t hear a few jokes at the film’s expense.

Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites a group of strangers to “the House on Haunted Hill” as part of a birthday party for his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart).  Anyone who lasts till morning in the house wins $10,000.  Unfortunately, the former owner of the house, a man named Watson Prichard (Elisha Cook Jr.) knows that the ghosts won’t let them out so easily.

I mentioned never seeing the remake of 13 Ghosts in my review and I actually can’t say the same about this film.  I have seen the 1999 remake and I actually really like it.  Sacrilege I know but the added gore works and the acting (particularly Geoffrey Rush doing his best Vincent Price) sets it above the rest.  I’m not sure if I’ve lost all credibility but I stand by my comments.  You can see Castle setting up similar elements he’d recycle with 13 Ghosts.  The opening credits to this film are essentially the same as the ones utilized in 13 Ghosts.  Both rely on sound effects such as screaming and ghostly moaning and chain rattling.  I guess if it ain’t broke don’t fix it?  Although where 13 Ghosts introduced each of the titular ghosts, here we have floating head intro!  I haven’t seen a floating head intro since my Black Sabbath review and you know I’m a sucker for disembodied heads!  Interestingly, the disembodied heads are of Loren and Prichard who are the two sides of the ethical coin: one being a greedy playboy and the other a scared drunkard.

Let’s discuss our group of actors.  Vincent Price is entering my Hall of Fame and boy is he amazing in this film.  If you want proof of how he can be intimidating, macabre and hilarious, just watch his performance as Frederick Loren.  I could easily take Frederick and Annabelle Loren out of the haunted house and into their own film; they’re that compelling.  We’re introduced to them through the back story, that of it being Annabelle’s birthday and Frederick has invited everyone.  The problem is Annabelle doesn’t want to come down to the party because Frederick has taken it over and invited people she doesn’t know.  Oh and both believes the other wants to kill them!  Their relationship is a murderous version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in my opinion.  They talk cute and coy with disdain dripping from their mouths, every line being filled with hate and acknowledgement of past misdeeds.  Several times Frederick tells Annabelle openly of his desire to kill her, masking it with humor (imagining the headline “Playboy kills wife with champagne cork”).  It’s akin to watching characters dream of murdering someone and then abruptly flashing to the fact they’re doing nothing.  It helps that Price has a script, written by Robb White (who wrote the script for 13 Ghost and a few other Castle films), loaded with barbed one-liners that Price rolls off the tongue.  I dream of having the chance to tell someone I was given “arsenic on the rocks.”  He’s accompanied by the beautiful Carol Ohmart as his wife Annabelle.  Ohmart is a cold ice princess who pouts when she doesn’t get her way.  Hiding behind all that is a fierce murderess who manipulates men to do her bidding.  Oddly, she reminds me of Veronica Lake in her appearance which probably biases me on how awesome she is.

Elisha Cook Jr. is also in the running for my Hall of Fame and isn’t he just sweet as the drunken Prichard?  He introduces our story as he recounts the tragedy his family has faced within the house on Haunted Hill.  He recounts a particularly gruesome story about his sister killing her husband and lover but no one finding the heads.  I’ll let you guess whether those heads pop up anywhere.  Money motivates him towards staying in the house but anytime the camera cuts to him he has this pained expression on his face; a mix of terror and questioning like “Why the hell am I here?”  Probably why he spends the rest of the runtime getting good and soused.  Alan Marshal and Julie Mitchum are good as Dr. Trent and Ruth Bridgers respectively but their incidental to the plot, simply there to be a villain and round out the cast respectively.  Then you have our two lovebirds, Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) and Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig).  I’ll give them their own paragraph because it’s a long one.

I HATE their characters.  Actually, I don’t like Lance but I ABHOR Nora.  For starters, I don’t buy any love story born within a horror film.  You have survivor’s guilt for starters and any relationship is helped by fear and the yearning for protection.  Do I think Lance and Nora left the house and lived happily ever after, hell no!  I can see how they’d recount the story of their love to their children.  “It all started in the room with the acid vat.  We locked eyes and knew it was love.”  The group goes to the cellar to see the aforementioned vat of acid where a ghost killed his wife.  Can I just say this vat is still filled with acid after all this time.  No one thought, “Hmm that’s dangerous, guess I’ll let it sit for 20 some odd years.”  I’ll bet you ten dollars you can’t figure out if someone ends up in it by the end.  Anyway, Lance convinces Nora to stay in the room (love amongst the acid vats…sounds like the title of a romance) and proceeds to start blindly opening doors and entering rooms.  It appears this is a Castle trope.  Once things start happening to Nora the two are separated.  Actually Nora leaves and Lance takes his sweet ass time going to look for her.  Instead of finding her, he finds Annabelle and it’s “Nora who?”  Yep he gets all flirty with Annabelle and allows her to manipulate him into thinking Frederick is going to kill her.  Yeah Nora, you two kids have a promising relationship.

Actually, these two deserve each other!  Lance should have to hear Nora scream and cry for eternity because that’s what it felt like every time this girl was on-screen.  Carolyn Craig’s career skewed in favor of television and it appears her life ended under tragic and mysterious circumstances but this role does nothing for her.  She’s meant to be doe-eyed and scream/cry all her lines.  She just becomes a nuisance after twenty minutes because your sick of hearing her scream.  I can’t recall the other actresses making as much noise as Nora does.  At one point an enchanted, self-moving rope starts coming towards Nora and wrapping around her legs.  I think of that canopy bed in 13 Ghosts.  At any time Nora could have run or slowly walked away (the rope wasn’t chasing after her) or when it started to wrap around her maybe use her arms and fight.  Castle and his women seem to be at odds because they all make stupid decisions.  Another example is Annabelle’s death when she falls into the acid vat (hope you didn’t lose ten bucks).  She looks at it several times before standing by it, and when she’s right in front of it she turns around!  Um, why not just move around it?  And one can’t forget Dr. Trent whose there under the auspices of trying to prove hysteria is real so of course the only hysteric is Nora!  Way to perpetuate the stereotype that hysteria is a female problem!  Too bad William Castle isn’t around, I’d love to give him a piece of my mind in regards to his ladies.

The scares are on par with 13 Ghosts, some work and some are cheesy.  One closely associated with this film is the scene of Nora in the cellar.  The scare is when a woman with arms outstretched has ended up right next to Nora and glides out of the room.  It’s an effective scare because, while you know something is coming, you’re not quite sure what it will be.  Of course it’s later stated that the woman is blind and is the caretaker’s wife (the caretaker by the way tries to kidnap Nora to get her out of the house).  Thanks Frederick, you might have given a friendly reminder like “Hey you might see some crazy old woman gliding around here.  She’s just the wife of the guy in charge.  Oh and the caretaker is a little grabby in case you were curious.”    Other attempted scares are cheesy like the skeleton that looks like it’s on wires.  I know that’s the punchline, that Frederic is controlling it but still it looks fake before you know that.

No matter its flaws I still enjoy House on Haunted Hill.  The acting from Price, Ohmart, and Cook is amazing and you can’t help but be scared and laugh at the stupidity of these characters.  The movie also has layers to it as not only should you fear the ghosts but there’s a genuine murder plot that develops.  I’ll end with my favorite quote to let you savor: “It’s a pity you didn’t know when you started your game of murder that I was playing too.”

Type of Horror: Haunted House

Fright Meter: 4

Grade: B

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6 thoughts on “House on Haunted Hill (1959)

  1. “For starters, I don’t buy any love story born within a horror film. You have survivor’s guilt for starters and any relationship is helped by fear and the yearning for protection.”
    Very good point!

  2. I LOVE Vincent Price. Even though TCM ran this a couple of times in the last month or so, I watched it both times. Did you see the remake with Geoffrey Rush? They shot part of it at Universal Studios Orlando. (I live in Orlando.) No, it was definitely not as good as the original!

    • I have seen the remake with Rush and while it doesn’t touch the original, I still hold a soft spot for it as I saw the remake first. Not to mention I think the backstory in the remake is fantastic. I did remember hearing how they filmed the remake in Orlando, I’ve been to Universal Studios in Florida once and I remember saying “hey that’s the coaster they used.”

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