Originally published October 21st, 2012
House on Haunted Hill is the go-to haunted house film second to The Haunting (1963). Where the latter film aims for a psychological approach this 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 (1960), 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 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 and 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 a floating head intro! I haven’t seen a floating head intro since my Black Sabbath (1963) review and you know I’m a sucker for disembodied heads! Interestingly, the disembodied heads are of Loren and Prichard, two sides of the ethical coin, one a greedy playboy and the other a scared drunkard.
Let’s discuss our group of actors. Vincent Price, 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 believe the other wants to kill them! Their relationship is a murderous version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They talk cute and coy with disdain dripping from their mouths, every line 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, a cold ice princess who pouts when she doesn’t get her way. Hiding behind all iciness 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 by recounting 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 their 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?” This probably explains 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 they’re 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 hate Schroeder and Manning in this film. Actually, I don’t like Lance and 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. How is 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), proceeding 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, allowing her to manipulate him into thinking Frederick is going to kill her. Yeah, Nora, you 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, becoming a nuisance after twenty minutes because you’re 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, wrapping around her legs. (Shades of that canopy bed in 13 Ghosts.) 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, falling 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 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 who discovers a woman with arms outstretched has ended up right next to her before gliding 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 the woman is the caretaker’s wife and blind (the caretaker to kidnap Nora to get her out of the house, by the way). Thanks, Frederick, you might have given a friendly reminder like, “Hey you might see some crazy old woman gliding around here. She’s the wife of the guy in charge. 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 it still looks fake before you know that.
No matter its flaws I enjoy House on Haunted Hill. Price, Ohmart, and Cook’s acting 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.”
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.