Tuesday, October 12, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959) is a true classic that everyone who says they are a fan of the genre must see. Directed by William Castle from a Robb White script, it stars the always-sensational Vincent Price and is a fun trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember seeing it on such things as Chiller Theater or on a lazy Saturday afternoon as a kid.

Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) is throwing a party for his flirtatious vixen of a wife at the so-called House on Haunted Hill. He's invited five of their closest friends strangers to join the in celebration, and has sweetened the pot by promising to pay them each $10,000 to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house. This film was made back in 1959, but even now, ten grand sounds pretty sweet to just last out the night in some creepy old mansion. I did it for free back in high school on a few occasions.

Upon their arrival (in long black funeral cars I might add), our group goes about getting to know each other. Besides Loren and his minx wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), we meet Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshall) - a dodgy psychiatrist, Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) - a pilot and the go-to stud of the film, Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) - a rather unlikable columnist who has a gambling problem, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) - a gullible secretary for Mr. Loren's company, and Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) - relative of two of the people who have already died in the house, who continually mumbles about the ghosts in the house who will never let them leave or some kind of drivel like that.

They all settle in for a long winter's nap, with drinks all around.
We witness a private conversation between Loren in his wife in their bedroom, with him all pissy because she won't come down for the party and her doing nothing but complaining about him still being alive. Seems he's been married three other times and each time it didn't end well - for the wife, if you know what I mean.

Nervous Nora seems to be the one who experiences pretty much all the 'hauntings', and she's got some serious lung power. Her screaming almost becomes commonplace throughout the film, and of course Lance is always running to her rescue. She places a lot of trust in someone she just met!

In one instance early on, she sees a floating, cackling old hag glide across the floor in front of her. She's then grabbed from behind by a creepy old guy who mutters something about "don't let them get you, too!" and she manages to get away from him, flying into the parlor where everyone else has gathered. (Why she is always going off by herself is beyond me.) Turns out, the old hag and her male counterpart are the freaking help - the maid and the butler. Oh gee, why didn't I think of that? Probably because they are so ghastly looking, that's why!

So poor Nora has had just about enough already, and when she finds out that the servants have left the house and it is locked up and they can't leave, this about puts her over the edge. She no longer cares about the ten grand, and just wants to leave.

When Loren's wife finally decides to join the party, she warns them about her fears that her hubby has gone over the deep end. Loren, in tandem, tells the group that he is near-certain that his wife is trying to kill him. He presents the guests with (really cool) little coffins, each of which contain a pistol for their own protection. (Obviously this is a really unique party.)

Nora somehow starts to believe that Loren wants to kill her too, because she keeps hearing and seeing strange things, and that only escalates after Annabelle hangs herself. Soon, Nora is seeing her ghost too.

More mayhem ensues, including a trip to the basement in which a story is relayed about someone's death in a vat of acid (and yep, the vat is still there - and still filled with acid! Hint, hint!) Seriously, why any of these people would spend any time wandering around this house alone?! (Which I must say looks very un-like a haunted house on the outside but classic once indoors.) And come to think of it, why would anyone keep a vat of acid in their house?
If creepy shit was starting to go down on a regular basis, why wouldn't they all just stay in one room for the night? Take turns keeping watch or something. Bah! What would make you check for a hidden room behind a bookshelf? Why would you go into the basement? This isn't Scooby Doo or a Hardy Boys episode, folks!

Anyway, the action escalates when you find out someone wasn't telling the whole truth about who they are and what they are doing there. And someone else already knew that!
Without spoiling it (if you happen to be one of the 13 people who hasn't seen this film), I can only say that someone has a close encounter of the worst kind with that vat of acid. And there are more than just a few shots fired from those guns.

Part of what makes this film so awesome is just the campy special effects. The woman floating across the floor, the disembodied heads hanging around, the hokey skeleton coming to life... William Castle always went for the gusto, relying heavily on gimmicks to get a charge out of the audience (sorry, shameless reference to The Tingler!) No one said Castle was a directing genius, of course. But his fervor for the genre and his enthusiam for the stories are what carries his films.

The acting is embellished sometimes even to the point of excessiveness, from everyone except Price that is. Who in their right mind doesn't want to see Vincent Price act that way? He's such a film legend that I'd watch him if he'd made a movie about how to clean out your sewage system! I can hear him in that deep, forboding tone: Well first, you have to assure that nothing is stuck in your toilet drain....muah ha ha!!
The man just reeks cool.

I have to recommend this movie on its merits of both Price and let's face it, film history. When it was remade in 1999, it really didn't have the same feeling as the first. I'm sure part of it was the fact that it was made forty years later, but most of it came from it being missing that special aura of kooky goodness that the first had. Though I will say Geoffrey Rush fared quite well in the Vincent Price role (in which they aptly changed the surname to Price). But for all intents and purposes, you really need to see the original - it's a quaint and utterly marvelous piece of horror film history.


lazlo azavaar said...

Ah,Vincent Price...eases the pain.

Mary said...

Nice movie to watch during halloween season anyway I found this website http://www.thatsmyface.com/f/masks that can create a super-realistic mask of anyone from just a photo. Imagine going as yourself, your boss, your favorite celebrity or worst enemy to a Halloween party?!