Horror Classics: The House on Haunted Hill
I love a good ghost story!
Welcome back to the Horror Classics series! Last time we discussed Twins of Evil, the third entry in Hammer Studios' Karnstien Trilogy. Now, there are many more Hammer films to discuss but I can't only do those; I have to do other films too. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a personal favorite of mine: House on Haunted Hill.
No, not the 1999 remake - that was awful! No, today we're going to discuss William Castle's 1959 classic with Vincent Price!
This is going to be great!
Behind The Scenes of House on Haunted Hill
The film was written and produced by Robb White and co-produced by William Castle - who also directed the film. It stars Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Elisha Cook, Carolyn Craig, and Alan Marshal among others.
It was filmed in Los Feliz, California with exterior shots of the house being done at the Ennis House. The interior shots were done on sound stages which depicted the house in a couple of different styles (including 1890's Victorian and Romanesque). The film is best-known for its use of "emergo." This was a gimmick used by a few theaters where exhibitors used an elaborate pulley system near the screen to float a prop skeleton above the audience during a particular scene.
The use of this gimmick made the film a huge success. It was produced on a budget of only $200,000 and released by Allied Artists on February 17, 1959. It grossed $2.5 million at the box office and caught the attention of the great Alfred Hitchcock who subsequently made Psycho.
Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) rents the titular house to host a haunted house party with his wife Annabelle. The party guests are 5 strangers (both to each other and their hosts): Ruth Bridges, Dr. David Trent, Nora Manning, Lance Schroeder, and the house's owner Watson Pritchard. The only thing connecting the five guests is that they're all desperate for money.
What does that have to do with anything? Well, each guest has been promised $10,000 on the condition that they spend one full night in the allegedly haunted house. The ghostly residents apparently don't take kindly to uninvited guests and strange things start to happen - mostly to Nora. When Annabelle Loren is found hanging from the rafters, suspicion falls on her husband and the mystery slowly unfolds from there.
The Ennis house is an intimidating structure when viewed from the exterior. The eclectic interior furnishings just add to the creepy vibes that the place gives the audience.
Vincent Price is fantastic, he's an absolute legend in the horror genre and this is one of my favorites. His portrayal of Frederick Loren is charming and, at the same time, menacing. You're not quite sure what's going on inside his head. The rest of the cast is good too with Carol Ohmart's ethereal beauty and commanding presence chewing the scenery. She stands toe to toe with Price. Elisha Cook is the crazy Ralph of the film (yes, I used a Friday the 13th character reference) and Carolyn Craig is the typical screaming damsel in distress - a character archetype that was pretty standard for the time.
The music and sound design are great too with the musical score switching from quiet and subtle to blaring and back again. Every creaking door and jingling chain sets your nerves on edge and you wonder what's going to happen next.
What Doesn't Work?
So...what doesn't work? Surprisingly, not much.
- The effects work is mostly good with one or two sequences where the film's age definitely shows.
- Carolyn Craig's near-constant screaming gets a bit grating after a while.
- The ending doesn't make a whole lot of sense - I'll explain this one in a bit.
It's time to discuss some standout moments in the film and you know what that means. That's right, spoilers ahead! You have been warned.
This film has an amazing opening! It starts with a black screen and then you get these chilling screams accompanied by maniacal laughter, creepy moans, and rattling chains before Elisha Cook's head pops up and he gives us this bit of narration:
"The ghosts are moving tonight, restless...hungry. May I introduce myself? I'm Watson Pritchard, in just a minute I'll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people - including my brother - have been murdered in it. Since then, I've owned the house. I've only spent one night there, and when they found me in the morning, I was almost dead."
Vincent Price appears next, introduces himself, and gives us the story's setup - the party in the mansion with a pay cheque of $10k if anyone stays the night.
Now, I first saw this film when I was about 10 or 11 years old and it scared the hell out of me! I didn't even get all the way through it. I saw it again in 2015 with my grandmother and made the mistake of sitting near one of the speakers that made up her sound system...that screaming started and I just about leaped out of my skin - much to gran's delight and amusement!
The Vat of Acid in the Wine Cellar
Watson Pritchard's tour of the house ends in the wine cellar where he discusses one of the house's previous owners - a Mr Norton.
"Mr Norton used to do a great deal of experimenting with wines, but his wife never thought it was any good; so he filled the vat with acid, and threw her in. She was supposed to stay down, but the bones came up."
This was one of the creepier scenes because at one point Nora almost falls in and, to demonstrate that there was still acid in the vat, Pritchard picks up a dead rat and drops it in the vat. The acid bubbles and hisses and the rat's skeleton floats to the surface.
What I like about this scene is the doctor's reaction; it's small but there's a slight change in his expression as he looks at the skeleton in the acid. This is, of course, a bit of foreshadowing.
Let's discuss the ending because this is both very effective and very confusing. It starts with the revelation that the doctor is having an affair with Loren's wife and that the whole thing was apparently setup to drive one of the guests - Nora - off the deep end and have her shoot the eccentric billionaire. This part works out fine as Nora shoots Frederick Loren in the basement of the house.
The doctor goes to dispose of the body in a vat of acid and is killed offscreen when the screen fades to black. Annabelle comes down to see if the deed's been done and we get one of the best scenes in the movie. The doors in the basement creak shut and the locks click, the lights go dim, and Vincent Price starts talking:
"At last you've got it all, everything I have...even my life but you are not going to live to enjoy it. Come with me murderess, come with me..."
She's screams in terror as the skeleton walks towards her, backing her into a proverbial corner and pushing her into the vat of acid which bubbles as it dissolves her body. We're then treated to Vincent Price stepping out of the shadows with a puppeteer's rig and he gives one of the creepiest lines ever:
"Good night doctor, good night Annabelle. The crime you two planned was indeed perfect, it's a pity you didn't realize when started your game of murder...that I was playing too."
Carol Ohmart's performance is both brilliant and irritating at the same time. She's screaming in terror - like any normal person would - watching this skeleton approach her but she's backing away in a straight line. She makes no attempt to move around the skeleton and ends up dying in a brutal, but rather silly manner. The implication that Price's character knew about the plot and chose to wait to turn the tables the way he did is all kinds of creepy and sinister. Unfortunately it does raise a number of questions.
Price explains that his wife and the doctor were planning to kill him and that the doctor ended up falling into the vat of acid and that his wife 'stumbled and fell' and closes off by saying that he's ready for justice to decide if he's innocent or guilty.
Nobody saw the doctor and Annabelle's deaths so there were no witnesses to say whether it was murder or a tragic accident. Even if there is a trial, there's no physical or forensic evidence to say it was murder so how would that even work?
Overall, this film has held up fairly well. It's not without its issues, but it's a great flick to kill time with on a Friday night with friends. It's corny, cheesy, and melodramatic which may not be for everyone. That said, I highly recommend checking it out if you haven't already; I still get a kick out of it!