It’s one of my favorites and I own at least three versions, but 1959’s classic House on Haunted Hill has always felt a little more like a haunted hayride than a movie to me. I bet the shade of showman architect William Castle cackles around his cigar at that. He’d probably drop his own rotting skeleton on me at the climax if he could. Come to that, maybe the fact that House on Haunted Hill still plays around the world without summoning William Castle from an unquiet grave is a good indication there’s no afterlife. This guy issued audiences life insurance in the event they died from fright during 1958’s Macabre, planted buzzers in theater seats to spark panic during 1959’s The Tingler, offered audiences of 1961’s Homicidal a full refund just before the climax, provided they signed a document confirming one as “a bonafide coward.” How could that guy resist such a powerful promotional gag from beyond the grave? I am doubting he could. Castle co-directed the film with an uncredited Rosemary Horvath, which maybe is to say Horvath gave us the movie and Castle gave us the show. In this case, show meaning Emergo, a gag which saw a skeleton marionette emerge in theaters at the same time the movie’s villainess confronts one onscreen. The show was the big sell of this haunted hayride, lending it a carnival spookhouse atmosphere that travels with it remarkably well, decades outside its original theatrical context. And the show is usually what we talk about all these decades later, what Ben Mankiewicz will spend his introduction to the movie on when it plays on TCM this October – because it will play on TCM in October, because it is such a Halloween classic – even though the show is really the most ephemeral part of the whole enterprise.
Vincent Price will always be the difference in any film in which he appears, certainly any horror film, and a big key to House on Haunted Hill’s immortality is Vincent Price’s immortality. When Price’s scheming millionaire Frederick Loren invites you, via disembodied head, to his haunted house party, no one in their right mind could refuse. Not yet entirely the icon he would be, the Corman-Poe cycle still ahead of him, Price nevertheless brought a strong horror resume with him in 1959, and his performance here hearkens back to what made one of his earliest horror performances in 1953’s House of Wax so memorable: his ability to straddle the line of hero and villain so convincingly. Price’s Loren is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a trophy wife who’s plotting to be a beautiful widow; the verbal jousting and sizzling antagonism between Loren and wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) juices up the dusty spookhouse with mortal passion that’s somehow more interesting than a severed head in a suitcase. Their sniping is truly iconic stuff, and while the 1999 remake – which I also love – took plenty of liberties, the Loren/Annabelle relationship* is something it’s careful to preserve. Price actually plays much of the film pretty straight, and the audience gets to see what the party guests miss in Annabelle’s threats, but for all his protests of innocence, he’s still Vincent Price at his Vincent Priciest – affable, cultured, smiling to himself as a crashing chandelier scares the bejeezus out of his guests.
That rotten relationship, and the pair’s homicidal plans each for the other is the pretext for the party, to which Loren has invited a group of strangers, “a cross-section” of society according to him, but all alike in their need for easy cash. The deal is they’ll all be locked in the reputedly haunted house from the title overnight, and if they survive, they each get $10,000. If they die, their next of kin still get the money, so winner-winner, I guess? The guests include a psychiatrist who specializes in hysteria, the owner of the house who lost family members to its legend, a society columnist with a gambling problem, Nora, a prim secretary for Loren’s company, and Jerrod Barkley as the jet pilot. Plot twist when the first big scare comes and the group is locked in earlier than advertised. Loren and Annabelle break out their party favors, handguns in little coffins, and with everyone nice and scared and armed, we’re off to the races. From that point, no one can be sure of who – or what – is doing the scaring. Or the killing.
As you might expect, there’s stuff that doesn’t age well. A plump postwar ideal of white masculinity, Richard Long’s hero, Lance Schroeder, is one of the great Stupid Men of Horror, spending virtually all of his screen time either disbelieving his hysterical love interest or being knocked out by the mysterious forces in the house. And yet, I sense the movie does not share my desire to punch him. He deserves every bit of the ribbing he gets in the Rifftrax versions of the film, and more – though I do admire how well Dick Long brought this dickbag to smarmy, blandly confident life. As much as Lance’s kidding Nora grates, the movie doesn’t hold up much to sporting scrutiny either – why does the exterior not match the interior? Is the House on Haunted Hill actually a TARDIS? Why is a murder weapon still hidden on the premises? Why is there still a pool of acid in the basement? How did Annabelle’s secret lover get on Loren’s guest list? Does Loren believe that somehow a skeleton marionette can’t be entered into evidence as a murder weapon? And so on.
The scares are on the tame side, too – or so I had come to believe. House on Haunted Hill has been part of my life for so many years, it’s just an old friend in a Halloween costume. I can’t imagine not laughing at the blind old housekeeper that surprises Nora in a dark room, gliding past the screaming girl with face and fingers gnarled in the manner of a cartoon witch, all the while pretty clearly on rollers. I’ve certainly never considered the movie scarier than Halloween episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Andy Griffith Show, and for much the same reason. There will be scares, a severed head, a witch face, blood dripping from the ceiling, sure, but everything will be fine in the end. There may not be a god, but there’s absolutely a Hays Code.
But scary is subjective, and familiarity, when it doesn’t breed contempt, can foster comfort. I’m apt to load up House on Haunted Hill year round, but, much like TCM, especially gearing up for Halloween. At Castle Englert, Halloween is nearly a full season, beginning in early September with the annual awakening of retail displays** and ending with my birthday in mid-November – a fitting transition to Turkey Day festivities and MST3K marathons, the lighted Halloween tree bowing out to its more celebrated Xmas cousin. While I could write a book about parenthood as a zombie siege movie, one of its many singular joys is the vicarious unboxing of childhood experiences, and that’s another reason to make Halloween last as long as possible. My daughter is two now, significantly braver than I was at her age – possibly also my current age – but the first hinge creaks of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and she’s screaming, “No Thriller! No Thriller!” And then a few minutes later, she’ll come to me and quietly ask to hear “Thriller.” I remember that push-pull fascination with spookiness so well, when you’re not capable of recognizing that the old woman in the dark is on rollers or that the severed head in Nora’s luggage was never belonged to anything persuasively human. When she watches Elisha Cook Jr.’s baleful, goggle-eyed protestations that they’ll all be dead by dawn, she has no reason to disbelieve him, not yet. House on Haunted Hill, I am reminded, is still a horror movie.
And more than that, it’s still a good horror movie. It isn’t a staple of Halloween cable schedules just because it’s public domain, and certainly no longer owing to Castle’s amazing promotional audacity. You not only have prime Vincent Price action, but you have great performances across the board. Carol Ohmart is formidable and steely as Annabelle Loren, and I particularly admire the barely-swallowed revulsion she shows at her husband’s possessive touch. Carolyn Craig’s Nora has the heavy lift of being brave enough for the audience to care about while being believably scared to death in service of the plot, and she makes it work, even according to modern expectations of Final Girls. Elisha Cook Jr. prophesies doom into the bottom of a glass all movie long with a fierceness that cannot be debunked simply by rational explanations everywhere. Make no mistake, it’s an ultra low budget Scooby-Doo riff on a locked-room mystery, with a necessarily agoraphobic approach to staging, but much like a haunted hayride, you’ll have scares and plot twists seizing you too rapidly to ever notice how unconvincing the makeup was. Not only that, but it’s closest most of us will ever get to partying with Vincent Price.
House on Haunted Hill is available pretty much everywhere. There are several versions, including a restored black and white version and a colorized version, streaming on Amazon Prime. The Rifftrax Three Riffer version is worth a watch, too.
*In 1999, it’s Steven Price and Evelyn, not Frederick Loren and Anabelle, but it’s also exactly Frederick Loren and Anabelle. Plaudits to Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen.
**Excepting, of course, the craft stores, which begin agitating for Halloween sometime in June.
Since learning House on Haunted Hill is in the public domain, Angela’s been working on a musical version. She’s currently trying to rhyme “hanging harness.”