House on Haunted Hill

Release Date: 1958 {DVD 2002}

"More silly than spooky ... a weakly-plotted film held together by cheap gimmicks, a few good scares and the charisma of Vincent Price ... worth watching for the gleeful fun, the occasional thrill and amusing dialogue"

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

I think it says a lot that our generation's greatest living schlock director, John Waters, thinks the world of William Castle, who produced and directed House on Haunted Hill. In fact, Waters wishes he were William Castle, due to that man's key grasp of the hokey gimmick as a selling-point for movies. {But then, given the sort of movies Mr. Waters makes, it's probably a good idea he's not William Castle.}

Castle wanted to electrify chairs in the theatre for The Tingler, and had the titular Thirteen Ghosts visible only with Illusion-O glasses. He gave out toy axes for Strait-Jacket and warned theatergoers for House on Haunted Hill that they'd have to have their blood pressure checked in the lobby before entering the movie. And while he knew how to deliver a good scare when the script called for it, they were more of the "booga-booga" variety - always enough to make you jump out of your seat, but you could only laugh at your own fright thereafter.

In that vein, the House on Haunted Hill is considered a "classic" ghost story, but it's more famous for being one of Vincent Price's first forays into cinematic horror, as well as the film that had the Emergo! gimmick. And while it is, arguably, one of William Castle's best films, we have to remember that it's stacked up against the likes of Thirteen Ghosts and The Tingler, which means it's not all that great.

Still, there's something to be enjoyed in this film, no matter how bad some parts of it - especially the "plot" - may be. Any Wraithly inspiration you get may be about as hammy as Price's performance, but you never know when it may come in handy. For those reasons, I think it's at least worth your time to take a trip through the House, though you might not want to return all that often, or for very long.


Eccentric Millionaire Frederick Loren {Vincent Price, of far too many movies to name} is throwing a party for his lovely wife, Annabelle {Carol Ohmart, Spider Baby}. He's invited five people to stay the night at the titular House on Haunted Hill, given them each a loaded gun - in a nice, tiny, black coffin, no less - and informed them they can each have $10,000 if they spend the night, and live.

Apparently, this sinister set-up was all Annabelle's idea, including bringing everyone up in their very own hearse. Yet she's pissed off because her hubby invited other people, even though she had the idea of the hearses, along with giving them all those guns as party favors. {I think the script editor was looking down Ohmart's brassiere or something.}

And did we mention the House on Haunted Hill is really dangerous? It seems the place has claimed the lives of seven people over its century-long lifespan, and all of the people died in "wild" ways, according to the owner, Watson Pritchard {Elisha Cook Jr., The Maltese Falcon}. His brother died there, killed by his sister-in-law, and the last time Watson stayed there he was almost dead by morning.

So now he drinks himself blind, and does a lot of doomsaying: he wouldn't even be there if it wasn't for the payoff. And he's not the only one with his mind on the money - everyone else Mr. Loren invited was chosen because they really need some cash. This greed has pulled in hunky test pilot Lance Schroeder {Richard Long, Nanny and the Professor}, gamblers-anonymous gossip columnist Ruth Bridgers {Julie Mitchum, Hit and Run}, glum psychiatrist David Trent {Alan Marshal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame} and pretty screamaholic Nora Manning {Carolyn Craig, Giant}.

Of course, most of the really freaky stuff decides to manifest itself around poor Nora, since she's young, cute, unmarried and has Lance to hug immediately after. After going so far on Mr. Pritchard's gamey tour, an ill-advised stay in the basement with Lance leads to some frights, including our first sight of one of the house's seven ghosts {or is it?}. But poor Lance didn't see anything, since he got sapped by... something.

A return to the basement gives poor Nora another fright, which, again, Lance doesn't see. But while Nora's off upstairs, angry at Lance for being such a dildo, she meets Mrs. Loren, who confides in her that her husband is trying to kill them! It turns out that Annabelle is the fourth Mrs. Loren, and the others all died in "accidents"...

She also tells Lance - who comes looking for Nora - that she thinks her husband is trying to kill her. And wouldn't you know that, once they all meet up downstairs, and discover that the ghost was actually the blind wife of the caretaker {huh?} the deadly party favors are handed around.

"Those won't do any good against the dead," warns Pritchard from the bottom of the bottle. Just then the doors are locked by the caretakers, moments before anyone can take Loren up on the offer to chicken out. Everything is locked down, and there's no way to call for help, so everyone's stuck in the house until morning - oops.

Things get a little... odd from there. Nora swears there was a woman's head in her suitcase, but there's nothing there when everyone goes up to look. Then Lance finds that Nora's gone from her room... but the head is hanging in her closet!

And then Annabelle hangs herself from the top of the stairs. But there was no way she could have gotten up there, so it must have been murder! This gives Pritchard another chance to entertain the notions of his "pet spook," as Loren calls it. But Lance finds Nora, and she's convinced that Mr. Loren tried to kill her...

Lance cooks up some stupid idea to have her stay in her room. He then goes downstairs to attend a "meeting" where Dr. Trent more or less accuses everyone of having killed Annabelle. The solution: everyone should stay in their rooms until morning, when the police can settle things. And anyone who walks into anyone else's room can expect a bullet to the head.

The dead don't stay quiet in their rooms, through. Nora sees some sights outside her window, and picks that moment to run screaming outside her room. She's then scared by a few other things, and goes running screaming around the house some more, gun in hand...

What happens next is something you just have to see for yourself, if only to sit there and slap your forehead in sheer disbelief - several times. The ending may explain what happened, but if there's any "justice" to be met by Mr. Loren, we can only hope it's shared by writer Robb White.


The Gen

Like I mentioned earlier, House on Haunted Hill is considered more of a Vincent Price classic than a classic movie, and it's also fondly remembered for the glory that was... Emergo!

Emergo! was a giant, fluorescent, plastic skeleton on a wire. It was designed to sit in a secret box above the movie screen, and attached to the projectionist's booth with wires. At a certain point of the movie's climax, the skeleton's box was opened, and the bony apparition was then supposed to fly over the heads of the audience, and scare them silly.

However, Emergo! failed to be all that scary. We are also told that, more often than not, the contraption fell onto the theatergoers, rather than soaring ominously over their heads. That and return customers snuck their bb-guns into the theater, and took potshots at the poor skeleton as it passed overhead. {"Cinematic history became a little richer," as noted film critic Bruce Lanier Wright puts it.}

So while the gimmick didn't quite live up to Castle's hopes, it at least got him a few extra bucks, which was probably the idea in the first place. And I think that's as fitting a way as any to think of House on Haunted Hill : one gimmick after another, good for a quick, cheap fright but not really that scary in retrospect.

It also fails to be an effective spook story because it just cannot be taken seriously. The audience might be able to accept that there's still a vat of acid bubbling away in the basement, and that a century-old house looks like one of Frank Lloyd Wright's odder creations {point of fact, it is}. But the plot is terrible, hanging on slender threads that threaten to snap with the least inspection. And as for the denouement... well, saying it's skeletal at best is, perhaps, for the best.

But yet, there are moments in the film that make the House worth exploring. Vincent Price gives a masterfully camp performance, and his repartee with Carol Ohmart is gloriously sinister. Likewise, Elisha Cook's constant doomsaying helps add an air of earnest desperation that his increasing drunkenness can't bevel away. And while a lot of the scares are just cheap tricks, the sequence with the first "ghost," and the vision outside the window, remain real seat-jumpers when they first come on.


Wraith-Friendly Content

I think the best parts of the story, in terms of WOD-friendly content, are things we don't see. Elisha Cook's morbid retelling of the house's murders is spot-on for establishing a Haunt, complete with the notion of missing heads talking to one another in the dead of the night, or rolling around on the floor. That really is the stuff of nightmares if you let it sit on the tip of your brain for a while.

There's also something to be said about the use of sound in this film. Being subjected to blood-curdling screams in the dark of the theater is also quite inspirational, though your players might crap themselves if you try to pull it off, yourself. But the odd noises that herald the approach of the frights are more effective than many of the frights, themselves, and may be tried in the privacy of your own gaming room.


The Final Cut

"Well doctor, it looks like we have a real case of hysteria on our hands"

More silly than spooky, House on Haunted Hill is a weakly-plotted film held together by cheap gimmicks, a few good scares and the charisma of Vincent Price - not to mention the earnest face of Elisha Cook Jr. It's worth watching for the gleeful fun, the occasional thrill and amusing dialogue, but don't expect your visit to the House to be all that memorable. I give it two skulls, and recommend watching it when it comes on TV.


Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis-Brown House, which served as the exterior for the house


The Tingler - A guide to the films of William Castle

Reviews on the Wraith Project are the opinions of those reviewers, and are not necessarily those of the Wraith Project themselves. If you disagree with this review, send in another one. If you still feel like strangling the reviewer, see an analyst.