Monday, September 2, 2013

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Directed by:
William Castle

"There'll be food and drink and ghosts... and perhaps a few murders."

Haunted Hill opens with the sounds of screaming, moaning, laughing and rattling chains over a black screen, all of which wonderfully bring to mind a carnival spook show; a spirit this low-budget outing successfully tries to emulate. Millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) is hosting a party for his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). The two have rented a large, modern-looking mansion (exteriors were shot at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis Brown House in L.A.) and have invited along five guests; promising each 10,000 dollars if they successfully spend the night there. Baby-faced test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) could really use the money and so could pretty Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), an apparently underpaid employee of Frederick's whose entire income goes to support her family. Psychiatrist David Trent (Alan Marshall) is interested in coming along in hopes that it'll help in his studies on hysteria (plus he's just greedy) and newspaper columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) is writing a feature article on ghosts (plus she's also in debt because of a gambling problem). Our group is rounded out by the nervous Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr.), a jittery, traumatized drunk who used to live in the house and can attest to its bad reputation.

Each guest - strangers all - arrive in an individual funeral car and are greeted to a strong steel door closing all by itself and a chandelier falling and almost hitting Nora immediately upon entering. When the clock strikes midnight, the caretakers leave and lock everyone inside, and once that happens, there's no way out. We soon learn that Frederick and Annabelle aren't a happily married couple. In fact, they can't stand one another. He's insanely jealous and she flaunts her infidelities in front of him. Frederick reminisces about her trying to kill him ("Remember the fun we had when you tried to poison me?") and offers to pay her a million bucks for a divorce but she refuses. Either one or perhaps both have an ulterior motive for this little get-together. Since she's previously already tried to bump him off and it was her idea to hold the party in this particular house and since he has a history of losing wives prematurely (all three of his previous ones died under mysterious circumstances) and it was his idea to invite a bunch of complete strangers, either may want to use this opportunity to end their union permanently.

Seven people have been killed there (stabbed, dissolved in an acid vat in the cellar, etc.) including Watson's own brother, and by the end of the night there are bound to be more. Loaded pistols in coffin-shapes boxes are passed out as party favors, an organ plays itself, blood drips from the ceilings, lights flicker, a noose seems to move all by itself, a severed head is found in a suitcase, secret passageways are discovered, Lance is conked over the head, Nora keeps seeing visions of a creepy, floating old lady and Annabelle is finally found hanging in the stairwell... but all is not as it appears to be as several last-minute plot twists are thrown out to cap things off. Thanks to a good cast, clever and often highly amusing dialogue courtesy of Robb White and some classic old-school scares (a few of which still work quite well), House has managed to retain its charm and sense of fun all of these years later.

As with most Castle films, this was released in some theaters with its own gimmick. This time it was "Emerg-o;" a pulley system which flew a plastic skeleton over the audience's head. Filmed on a budget of just 200,000 dollars, House went on to make millions. It's success even encouraged Alfred Hitchcock to make his very own horror film; the following year's PSYCHO (1960). Warner first issued this on DVD and it was followed by a colorized version (distributed by 20th Century Fox) a few years later. And of course, there's always the remake...

House on Haunted Hill (1999) was the first effort from Dark Castle Entertainment (founded by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis) and was also one of the first films to usher in the highly-annoying contemporary remake trend that has yet to die. That version (starring Geoffrey Rush in Price's role and directed by William Malone) reused the same basic story (though upping the reward to a million bucks), piled on the KNB gore and added a new back story to the haunted home, but it forgot to be very fun. Still, it was far less offensive than the same year's utterly worthless remake of The Haunting.


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