Vincent Price’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) … Remembered
William Castle pulled out his latest gag to freak out young people, and rake in the cash, thereby making more out of less in his 1959 production of House on Haunted Hill. This is one of those inventive B-Movies that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I think it’s fun to watch, not only for its horror landscape, but for the camp, the moody over-acting, and Vincent Price. Vincent Price was a legendary horror film actor and he is his trademark self in this film, but the real success of the film was due to producer and director William Castle, who was famous for his gimmicks to pull in crowds of viewers.
William Castle was the Barnum and Bailey of horror movies from the 50s and 60s. His movies were all low-budget, including 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961), and Strait-Jacket (1964). Each of them had marketing gimmicks for the movie, or trinkets given out at the showing. His greatest success was Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where he was only producer, and it is still remembered today as one of the best in the genre. The thing about William Castle’s other films is that they are so full of energy that nobody cares if they are B-Movies. I know I don’t.
For House on Haunted Hill (1959), Castle came up with one of his usual theatre gimmicks. He flew a white, plastic skeleton over the heads of the audience just at the right time during the movie, pulling it along a cord at top speed. Audiences reportedly freaked out during initial showings. It is hard to imagine today, but this gimmick was enjoyed by many, especially kids. Later on, teens competed by tossing candy at the skeleton and it was a good time for all.
This movie begins with chains ratting, a girl screaming, and a black screen, like any good haunted house ride. That’s the tone of this movie. It is a haunted house ride for the audience, and the characters. Elisha Cook talks to the audience directly and tells them about a REAL haunted house he owns. This is the movie’s exposition to get the audience ready for the story. Although lazy, this form of direct exposition was fairly common in low-budget flicks like this.
Elisha Cook Jr was a famous character actor whose face you might recognize from Star Trek, The Maltese Falcon (1941), or other old television shows. I’m not sure what his most famous role is, but it could be in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, or this film, where he does a great job acting like a drunken wacko.
Vincent Price plays Frederick Loren, who has rented the house on haunted hill. Price was one of the top horror actors of the 40s and 50s, and his unique talent was his voice and dramatic flair. He was in many Roger Corman low-budget horror films in the 60s, and all of them were a success. All of them. He’s just about done it all, from radio to voice acting on Scooby Doo. In this film, he does a fine job as an arrogant jerk, but we’re not supposed to like Frederick Loren.
Vincent Price takes over the exposition, explains who each of the characters are, and why they were invited to the house. He adds a little dark joke here and there. It is a fairly simple gimmick. Each of the visitors to the house is fairly generic and the exposition doesn’t help them stand out. They shuffle up to the house and the story is off. This movie is only 90 minutes long, so it moves fairly quickly. I think the running time is a decent one for a B-Movie like this, and I think all the scenes are paced very well.
The house itself is not your most normal-looking home. It seems to be made of white brick or stone, and there are many outcroppings, windows, and crazy designs on it. The front door wasn’t obvious from the outset, which is probably the point of this crazy design. The visitors feel uncomfortable already, and stand around waiting for their host.
While in the foyer, the visitors discuss their invitations and how they don’t know what the hell is going on. They don’t know Frederick Loren. They only know that they’ve been promised some money. A chandelier crashes to the floor and they don’t go running for the hills. These guys are just asking for it, to be honest.
The reason the guests are just standing in the foyer is that Loren and his wife are too busy having champagne and discussing the party. The dialogue is good, but that’s thanks to Vincent Price. Carol Ohmart plays Annabelle and she does a decent enough job I guess, but she doesn’t have much to do during the first part of the movie, except try to build the conflict with her husband. She certainly has the stare of death down pat though.
All the guests are forced to stay, as the caretakers lock the doors just prior to midnight. Still, they don’t take Loren’s challenge to stay overnight in the haunted house very seriously, except for Nora. She is the first to see something, and the first to freak the hell out. Nora is played by Carolyn Craig, who is more well-known for her TV work.
This movie is really a lovers quarrel disguised as a horror movie. Annabelle wants to murder Loren, and Loren wants to do the same to his wife. Loren plays a whole lot of games with the other guests. We think he’s dead, then he’s not. He hides in the shadows, then leaps out to scare people. I wish I were a rich guy, cause they get to do all the fun stuff. Finally, Loren wins the martial murder contest, dropping his wife and her lover into a vat of acid. Roll credits.
All in all, this movie is campy fun. It is not frightening and it’s not a good movie, but it does try to build a mood. This movie is for the horror aficionado and the Vincent Price fan, who is the star of the show, of course. Elisha Cook goes so far over the top that you can’t help but be entertained. It looks like he’s having fun in this movie. So is Vincent Price, and he camps it up on purpose. The fake skeleton flying through the cellar stretches my camp tolerance to the limit, but I’m still entertained, even by marital murder. Nothing wrong with a B-Movie trying to entertain me, because that’s why I turned it on.