July 29, 2011

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

"Eccentric millionaire Fredrick Loren and his 4th wife, Annabelle, have invited 5 people to the house on Haunted Hill for a 'haunted House' party. Whoever will stay in the house for one night will earn ten thousand dollars each."

I'm sure everyone is already familiar with this famous camp horror classic so I'm not going to spend too much time reviewing it. It's a William "The Tingler" Castle film and yet another vehicle for Vincent Price so what more do you need to know?

Yes, it's low-budget with some laughable special effects but everybody plays things straight and the story never lapses into comedy. In fact the subject matter is quite modern in a bizarre way with adultery, greed and murder very much on the agenda.

Although the title is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's novel, "The Haunting of Hill House", this shares very little with the later Robert Wise movie, "The Haunting" (1963). There is a ghostly curse as a kind of wraparound subplot but it doesn't really play much of a part except to set the tone for the party Vincent Price has arranged for his guests. I think there are definite homages to Shirley Jackson's story throughout which you will spot but this is a completely different story overall. Elisha Cook's character, Watson Pritchard, is very much a precursor to Roddy McDowell's Benjamin Fischer in "The Legend of Hell House" (1973) too. Shirley Jackon's material obviously went a long way.

Like most black and white movies of this era, there is a great atmosphere provided by the use of that medium. Most people also notice how very pale the blonde Carol Ohmart looks in contrast to everything too. I'm pretty sure that was intentional. She also stands out more than any of the other actors not just because of her beauty but because of her acting ability and sinister intentions of her character. She screams quite effectively at one point too.

The other screamer in this is played by Carolyn Craig. Her character, Nora, is introduced with suitable creepiness by Vincent Price using the words, "Isn't she pretty?" That line is actually delivered in such an inscrutable way that I'm still not sure if it suggests that Vincent Price's character, Frederick Loren, fancies her, wishes she was his wife instead of the one he has, or is just designed to implant the idea of the Emperor's new clothes in our minds. I don't think she's very pretty at all but she can really scream. I had to keep turning the volume down because she shrieks at just about anything and everything and in a most annoying way.

The house itself should be the real star of the show though. It's a weird looking place from the outside and almost as bizarre as the one in the modern remake. The exterior shots were filmed at the historic Ennis House in Los Feliz, California, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He based the design on ancient Mayan temples. You'll see it crop up in a lot of other movies too over the years including "Blade Runner" (1982) and just about anything based in Los Angeles that needs a mansion for a backdrop. I've even seen it in episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

The interior shots of the house are all studio bound. There's a certain amount of claustrophobia since none of the rooms appear to have any windows and they don't use many of them. It's a pity that the filming couldn't have actually been done inside the Ennis House. I would love to know what that place really looks like on the inside. I probably never will though since it all started to collapse back in 2005 and is currently being renovated.

I suppose I should mention Vincent Price's performance since he is really quite arrogant and downright mean at times in this movie. Although it's possible to sympathise more with Frederick Loren once you know he has been cuckolded, you still can't excuse his sadistic delight and controlling nature. He is a very bad man and you shouldn't let yourself be fooled for a moment that he does anything out of the goodness of his heart. It's a quite fascinating portrayal of a real psychopath with nothing but selfish intentions. The more times I watch "House on Haunted Hill", the more I realise how fantastic Vincent Price actually was and how clever the script of this movie still is.

"House on Haunted Hill" is not without some major flaws as is often the case with any B movie from this era. The sets are pretty sparse looking and the backstory to the characters is often more interesting than anything they present on screen. What seem like plotholes actually aren't though. Everything that happens is done for a reason. No, not just somebody making a cheap movie to make lots of money.

This was probably William Castle's greatest film and, even though we don't have the gimmick skeleton (who also gets a credit) in our own homes, there are some genuinely scary moments and a few things to think about after the fact. I'll let you decide what they are.

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