‘House on Haunted Hill’ (1959) is a gem of a film. I’ve watched it for years now and I have a great time doing so every time. The house is spooky, the jumps scary, and the shrieks ear piercing, just the way they should be!
Vincent Price does an outstanding job as Frederick Loren, an eccentric millionaire who devises a plan; he invites five seemingly random people to an old house he rents for a party in the hopes that the “haunted house” will do the deed of killing off his greedy wife for him. However, his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) has no intention of going quietly and has dastardly plans of her own. Who will survive this night is anyone’s guess.
Frederick’s incentive is simple: $50,000 is to be split amongst any of the guests who remain in the house the entire evening and live to see the morning. It’s a simple enough premise if it wasn’t complicated by floating ghosts, falling chandeliers, vats of acid, walking skeletons, and hanging guests!
I love this movie because it doesn’t take itself serious. It is standard haunted house fare, a big house, isolated and locked down with only one entrance that can’t be opened until dawn of the next morning. Two creepy caretakers, lots of rooms with bars on the windows, and plenty of hidden passages make finding a way out impossible and give the nefarious plenty of opportunities to conduct their dastardly deeds. Cheesy gags that are purposely meant to frighten the guests but are not real in the context of the story add to the mischievousness.
Throw in the psycho guest who believes in ghost and babbles constantly about the evil history of the house (the owner of the house in this story), the Doctor that seems to be present in every haunted house story, the alpha male hero of the group, and the easily frightened woman with a scream that can shatter glass, and you’re in for a great time even if it is fairly predictable.
There are enough of these type films that you have to really want to enjoy a film, and not critique it, to really understand why this film stands above most others. It is by no means a masterpiece of cinema but the actors all do great jobs portraying characters needed to make a story such as this come together. The house doesn’t detract, and the frights given by the gags you see make up for the shortage of any real ghostly frights elsewhere; this is one of the few haunted house movies I’ve seen where the house itself doesn’t deliver any frights.
‘House on Haunted Hill’ was directed by William Castle who was known for his in-theatre gimmicks. This movie was labeled as being filmed in “Emergo”, and during one scene where a skeleton walks towards Frederick’s wife, an actual skeleton hung on a wire would fly out from the side of the screen and float over the audience. Unfortunately the gimmick was short lived, once word got out about it the skeleton became the target of soda cups, sling shots and anything else that could be thrown at it. I would have loved to have seen it myself.
‘House on Haunted Hill’ is a typical Vincent Price classic and deservedly so. Go into it expecting such and you’re in for a great time.
The movie is embedded below for your viewing.