House on Haunted Hill (1958)
A Bad Movie Studios Review
On the table for a review today is House on Haunted Hill, a bit of a cult classic starting Vincent Price. It was directed by William Castle, who’s also known for his his work on The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and The Old Dark House (1963). He was also a producer on Rosemary’s Baby (1968). I personally like his work for making the experience in the movie theater a fright house, where seats would be rigged to shake and actors planted so that the audience got more than just a movie. This is a movie that I own a few copies of because it tends to appear on those 50 Horror Movie compilations a lot. In fact the one I’m watching today is part of a 15 Film Cult Classics Collection, one that includes White Zombie (1932) with Bela Lugosi, George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968), The Little Shop of Horror’s (1960) featuring Jack Nicholson, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) a Hammer Horror film from their Dracula series starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and The Terror (1963) another film featuring Jack Nicholson as well as Boris Karloff. This set is great. I get Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price along with William Castle, George Romero and Roger Corman in the Directors chairs. Now of course that’s not all 15 films on the set, but they are the standout ones. An interesting note about the DVD, the from cover has made up posters for each movie, but they have nothing of the original films on them. And the DVD menu’s are awkward. But a lot of them don’t make any sense. There are three different Vincent Price films on this list, House on Haunted Hill, Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Bat (1959). But only The Bat and The Last Man on Earth show him on the poster, and the picture they show, is the exact same one! How lazy can you get?
This film opens on of the most unexpected ways that I really should have seen coming. A woman’s scream blares from a black screen and some groaning is heard along with chain rattling. Then a head zooms into sight. The head belongs to a man who reveals his name to be Watson Pritchard, played by Elisha Cook Jr. He was also in Rosemary’s Baby, another tie to William Cook, and the Salem’s Lot miniseries which was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Stephen King, directed by Tobe Hooper (Director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre). He gives us backstory on the House on Haunted hill and tells us that since it was built 100 years before hand, 7 people have been killed there including his brother. Then he fades from view and we see a still image of the house itself, and again another head comes into frame, this time belonging to Vincent Price. He delivers a short monologue, explaining that he and his wife are throwing a haunted house party, and that anyone who can stay in the house for 12 hours will receive $10,000.00. He also tells us that we can expect ghost and a few murders and that if someone can manage to stay for the 12 hour time limit they’ll receive the money but if they die their earnings will go to their next of kin. What’s interesting is that he delivers that lines in such a way that make it seem that he’s talking to the viewer. But at the same time the lines make sense in context because it could easily be him reciting the invitations. It reminds me of when you;re watching a play and someone comes out in the opening and addresses the audience, engaging them in the experience. Remember, this is what William Castle is known for. Either way it’s and Price’s signature voice gives it an uneasy subtlety.
Price then introduces the other characters. We have a test pilot, a writer, a psychologist, an employee of Vincent Price, and we are reintroduced to Watson Pritchard. They all have the common theme of being hard up for money, whether its to feed their family, or because they have a gambling addiction etc. After that we’re given a bland title sequence that shows off shots of the house and our characters meeting. The music in the background is foreboding, but somewhat out of place. It seems like it would fit better in an episode of the Twilight zone.
When they get into the house, we are immediately given exposition. The characters just talk about things they’ve heard about regarding Vincent Price’s character, relieved to be a millionaire named Fredrick Loren. Shortly thereafter we get our first sign of odd activity ad a steel door gets slammed shut and a chandelier falls to the floor. It’s intended as a jump scare but fails to deliver. We see Fredrick at the top of the stairs and follow him as we are introduced to his wife Annabelle, played by Carol Ohmart. They exchange a dialogue that lets us in on the fact that they probably don’t have the most normal of relationships and that there’s a possibility of trouble in their love life. The lines are great and delivered with a wonderful subtext that points to those relationship troubles. Carol Ohmart is a beautiful woman and we get her character right off the bat. She has a coldness about her that works well with Vincent Price’s eccentric qualities. She has a hard stare and the two have great chemistry on screen.
Fredrick introduces himself to the party goers and runs down why they’re there. Now they all act normal with the exception of Walter. He seems like the only one who knows what’s going on with the house and goes on and on about ghosts and murder. He comes across as crazy and a tad over the top. One thing that doesn’t make any sense is that if he’s so scared about the ghosts, why did he go to the party in the first place? I know they mention that he needs money, but he actually owns the house, he tells you that back in the beginning when he’s just a head. So why not just sell the damn thing? It’s a nice house, I’m sure he could have made some money off of it. Anyway, the group is told the rules of this excursion and Loren tells Walter to give everybody a tour. While on the tour, the writer woman stands under a blood spot on the ceiling, and blood drops on her hand. Walter tells her that she’s been marked. She takes it rather well, with the psychologist agreeing that it must be something benign like a leaky roof. They proceed to the wine cellar as Pritchard gives us more exposition. He keeps talking about how violent the murders were and really drives home the weirdo vibe. Vincent Price has a look on his face like “What the hell is wrong with you? Get away from me”. Nora Manning, the girl who works for Fredrick Loren (played by Carolyn Craig), has a moment that’s kinda hard to understand. She looks like she nearly faints and then catches herself with the aid of the test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long). It’s weird because it’s really hard to tell what they were trying to get across. Walter tells here that she almost fell into the acid that’s in a pool in the wine cellar. He tells them that is melts away all the flesh from a body and leaves nothing but the bones. He throws a dead rat into the acid and as the smoke and bubbled rise from the water, we see it’s skeleton float to the surface. The effect is pretty lame. Walter just sort of shrugs it off as everyone else is freaked out and Loren leads them back upstairs.
Nora and Lance stay down in the cellar and trade back stories. You know, that’s something that’s kind of annoying about this film. There’s so much exposition. Only 20 minutes in you’ve been given 3 scenes of it. It’s tedious. Price and Ohmart were able to get a lot of information out in their scene together without talking about backstory. You learn that Fredrick is controlling and jealous, and that Ohmart is really into him for the money all through effective dialogue. That’s not to say that there isn’t exposition in that scene, it’s just delivered much better. Anyway, Lance decides to start opining doors that go to who knows where, and of course the door shuts on him leaving Nora alone. The lights go out and the music kicks up as a strange woman approached Nora from the darkness but then retreats. So she runs upstairs and tells everyone Lance is gone, making mention of the strange person she saw. They all run out to go look for him, except Walter. He just slowly saunters out behind them. What a little shit.
As they find Lance, he’s laying on the floor and when they pick him up he awakens and is bleeding. Walter tells the writer woman Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum) that he’s surprised that the ghosts didn’t kill the test pilot. They tend to his wounds and Loren asks what the ghost looked like. She tells him but it doesn’t really go anywhere in the scene. We get more ghost fearing from Walter too. Nora and Lance go off to look for what attacked him in the cellar.
As they looking around, we get another jump scare that is just nonsense. An old woman wearing ridiculous make up and in a goofy pose just stands there making weird faces at Nora. She floats off out of the room and disappears. It’s just so funny that it’s hard to believe anyone could be scared by it. She tries to tell Lance what happened but he doesn’t believe her and she storms off. She meets Annabelle and Mrs. Loren takes Nora to her room. Annabelle tells her that they’re all in danger and that Nora shouldn’t wander the house alone. Annabelle leaves her and runs into Lance. They talk about what happened in the cellar and she asks Lance if she can rely on him if something happens, and we’re given more exposition. Carol Ohmart just doesn’t work as well with anyone like she does with Vincent Price and this scene shows that. It comes off as part of that tedious group from before. She’s still good in it though, and we get the impression that she’s more than just cold, but cunning and seductive as well.
We get another short dialogue with the Lorens. It sets in that there might be some sinister motive for Fredrick throwing this party. He tells Lance and Nora to meet everyone downstairs at 12 O’clock. Nora then finds a severed head in a box in her room and runs out and down the hall. The head looks silly and her reaction isn’t at all what you;d think it would be. When she gets to the end of the hall. She runs into a curtain that partisans the hallway from another section, presumably the maids quarters. She’s grabbed from behind by a man who tells her to come with him before she’s killed. Of course that doesn’t go over well and she runs away screaming again. The thing that fails to process is how didn’t anybody else hear her? She screams at the top pf her lungs and both Annabelle and Lance are only a few doors down. Besides, Fredrick just went downstairs, shouldn’t he still be close enough to hear her? Whatever.
Nora Manning says that she doesn’t want to stay, and the strange man and funny looking old lady from before are revealed to be the caretakers of the house. The old woman is apparently blind too. The caretakers disappear randomly and the house is locked up before midnight. But that seemingly alarming fact is brushed over quite fast, and we move on to a series of Colt .45 pistols that are handed out to each member of the party. They have sort of a half ass debate over whether or not it’s a good idea to give them all loaded weapons and Nora tells them about the head she found in her room. Before they leave to go look at it, Annabelle gives her gun back to Fredrick saying that she doesn’t need it and he puts it back in the mini coffin it came in. Oh yeah, by the way, the guns were kept in mini coffins. They dismiss Nora’s claims and she yells at the rest of the group to leave her alone. The Psychologist tells Fredrick that Nora shouldn’t be frightened anymore. Real degree earning knowledge there guy.
Lance tries to find Nora who seems to have mastered Jason Voorhees’s ability to vanish completely, and stumbles across another jump scare in the form of, what appears to be a hair ball hanging in a closet. I really don’t know what to call it, it just looks like a balled up cat hanging on a wall. It turns out to be a head thought and Lance grabs it and loos around for Nora. He brings it to Walter who tells him that the ghosts have taken her and that soon she’ll be one of them. A scream is heard and Lance runs off as we find Annabelle has been hanged. Now, see this is the nonsense I was talking about earlier. When Annabelle makes half a croak people hear her, but when Nora Manning does it, it’s like she might as well be a Katy Perry album from when she sang gospel because nobody hear it. The Psychologist meets Lance at the scene and they cut Annabelle’s body down. They bring her to her room and Fredrick comes in. Lance leaves and finds Nora who tells him that Mr. Lorens tried to strangle her, but that he thought she was dead when she wasn’t and now she wants Lance to hide her. They talk about Annabelle’s death and wonder if it was a suicide or murder. Lance leaves Nora his pistol and goes downstairs for another meeting.
Lorens checks up on his wife’s body one more time, and at first we get some idea that he might have been the one to kill her. But when Walter enters the room, Fredrick nearly strangles him, asking why he dared to come in in the first place. It makes you see that he clearly isn’t 100% happy at his wife’s passing, and again Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart have a good scene together. Even though Carol’s dead.
The groups meeting effectively becomes a game of Clue, as they ponder who tried to crush Nora with the chandelier, murdered Annabelle, and attacked Lance. The blame loos to be put on Fredrick, and Vincent Price hits home a good performance. He legitimately looks pissed that anyone would accuse him of killing her, but chooses to defend himself no more than he has to. And that;s just great. He’s a millionaire, why would he waste the time with the riff raff right? It’s a good scene. He’s had enough of the nonsense. They all agree to part ways and go to their rooms, Lance even vowing to shoot anyone that enters. Walter again comes in to the dialogue to give some more “we’re all doomed” stuff and the group one by one splits off into their bedrooms. When Fredrick gets to his room, he breaks a martini glass. That’s at least one thins this movie does right. It really tows the line with his character making it an effective “who done it” for a little while. You really aren’t sure whether or not he did kill his wife. There’s plenty of evidence for him to have done so, and he even admits it. But yet he stands his ground on the matter and has some subtle moments that really deepen his character. And guess what? No damn exposistion. Basically at this point, you get the idea that he did love his wife, he just really didn’t like her. At least, that’s my interpretation.
We then see Walter he’s loading his pistol and waiting for whatever he thinks is coming. Then we cut to the psychologist, who lights some candles and starts writing. We assume about who may be the killer. The knob on his door starts turning like there’s someone trying to get it, but when he gets up to check, there’s nobody there. The writer woman is just standing around in her room when more blood drops on her hand from the ceiling. Thank god she has something going on because ever since the start of the movie we’ve been waiting for something to happen to her and there hasn’t been a pay off. Lance wanders around looking for a way to get out and ends up locked in a secret passage way. We transition to Nora again for one of the worst scenes in the whole movie. She’s just waling about her room, when the storm that just sort of magically started outside picks up. Through her barred windows, a rope slides across the floor like a snake and proceeds to wrap itself around her feet and legs. And she just stands there! She doesn’t even make a noise, she just gawks at it like some moron. She then see’s the ghost of Annabelle hovering outside her window and getting closer to the room. And then she just fades off into the distance, like the woman from the beginning of the film. But in the worst cut I have ever seen in a Horror movie, the ropes unwrap themselves from her legs, but all they did was reverse the footage. They literally repeat the same shot in reverse. It looks ridiculous. And the lighting effect in the scene is bad too. All they did was a simple strobe light effect by turning the lights on and off. Anyway, Nora runs out of her room, grabbing the pistol Lance left her, and see’s that Annabelle’s body is back hanging over the stairs again. I actually didn’t see it coming and it would have been a decent moment if they didn’t show the shot of her body twice. Then a creepy deformed hand comes around the corner trying to grab her. It looks like the hand on the cover of the Goosebumps book Stay out of the Basement. I wonder if there’s a connection.
Ms. Manning runs back to the room that the group keeps having meetings in, and the piano starts playing itself. You know she’s been doing a really bad job at not being alone this whole movie. And again, when she screamed after the hand tried to grab her, nobody comes to check out what’s going on. Even thought she’s closer now than before. But I’m not getting into that garbage again. So, yet one more time, she just runs off screaming.
The psychologist goes to Lorens to tell him that he thinks there might be someone else in the house. After agreeing to work together to search the house, Lorens and the doctor split up. But the psychologist turns on Fredrick and only used the idea as a ploy to get into his room. He does and he goes to the bed where we see Annabelle’s body still laying there. Got this movie is inconsistent. One scene it’s trying to be a psychological paranormal horror film, and the next it’s trying to be a murder mystery. I would really like if it could just pick to one style and work with it. The psychologist talks to Annabelle and it’s revealed that this was a ploy to kill Fredrick. They’ve been working together the whole time and faked Annabelle’s death. They’ve also been trying to drive Nora crazy and into killing Mr. Lorens for them so that it’s “The perfect crime”. It’s actually a decent twist and a nice way to get more scenes out of Carol Ohmart.
Vincent Price ends up stumbling upon Nora in the wine cellar and she shoots him. It’s kind of spoiled because it’s not like he could have really scared her. She turns, looks at him for a good 5 seconds, he says “Nora, no!” and she blasts him. Then she just screams and runs away. God, I really don’t like her character. All she really does in this movie is scream. At least Jamie Lee Curtis added to the story in Halloween. The psychologist shows up from a secret doorway to the cellar and opens the pool of acid. The lights go out and all we hear is a groan and a slash followed by a sizzle. It’s clear someone was dropped into the acid, but to be honest, the film clearly wants there to be a twist. It immediately guts to Annabelle again and the whole ending to the sequence seems fishy. If Price’s character was dead, how would he have made a noise going into the acid? Well we should find out soon enough. As I said we’re back to Annabelle. She heads to the wine cellar looking for the psychologist, but see’s nobody. All the doors in the room close. She peers onto the acid as we see the worst looking skeleton slowly rise from the acid. It’s so terrible. It’s a plastic skeleton on a string being pulled of camera. It’s just so bad. The skeleton walks across the room towards her (Carol Ohmart doesn’t make a noise by the way, she just stares like she got caught sneaking conies) and then it begins to speak! It’s Vincent Price who tells her that she’s going to come with him. Then she backs up directly in front of the acid, and stands there screaming for about 10 seconds, instead of just waling somewhere else (besides this skeleton is moving all of half a mile an hour) and then the skeleton actually pushes her in to the acid. It’s just so bad. You really have to see it to fathom the craziness of this scene.
So it turns out that we have a double twist ending, as after she’s dropped into the acid, Vincent Price steps out from behind one of the wine barrels with this contraption and we figure out that the skeleton was just a puppet. Wait. If the skeleton was just a puppet, how the hell did it push her into the acid? What does it weigh a ton? Was that why it was so slow? It’s nonsense! So basically, Fredrick knew of the doctor and Annabelle’s “perfect” plan to kill him basically used it against them. It kind of spoils what we’ve seen earlier though, because now we know that this whole thing really has been a ruse. Well if the plan was to just kill Annabelle and the doctor before they killed him, why not just do that in the damn first place? This movie is so convoluted it doesn’t make any sense.
So we meet back up with Nora, the writer and Walter and they end up finding Lance. They go downstairs and are shocked to find Lorens alive. He tells Nora that he loaded her gun with blank rounds and reveals to the remaining four members of the party that his wife and the doctor tried to kill him. Then, just like that, he walks off. Walter goes to the acid and gives some more “gonna die” lines, then ends the film by letting us know that they’re coming for us. They being the ghosts.
So that’s House on Haunted Hill. Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are really the only good things about this movie. The other characters are boring, the effects are laughably bad, and the storyline is the epitome of what a M. Night Shyamalan movie would have been like back int the late 50’s. It has this terrible sense of not being able to pick the style it’s going for. That leads to a really bad inconsistency with the film. When it tries to do horror, it fails so bad it’s funny. When it goes the route of murder mystery, it’s not too bad but not really all that great either. And dammit don’t get me started on the endless amounts of exposition. But you know what the weirdest thing about this movie is? I like it. Yeah, it’s pretty enjoyable. The story makes no sense and Walter is just annoying as hell, but the effects are so cheesy that you can’t help but like them. And Vincent Price is just great in this movie. Also the film is short, only about an hour and fifteen minutes, so it hardly drags. Even with all that exposition. Now there was a remake of this film in 1999 that was interestingly produced by William Castle’s daughter, Terry Castle. That film stars Geoffry Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean series) and Famke Janssen (X-Men series) as the husband and wife, and changes up the story. A lot of the characters are different, with the exception of Walter being in the movie. An cool note though is that the husband and wife’s last name are changed to Price, and obvious homage to Vincent.
Now like I said earlier, you can find this movie pretty much anywhere, I own 3 or 4 copies of it myself. If I’m not mistaken it’s public domain meaning that nobody owns the rights to it. So if you have the time and get your hand on House on Haunted Hill, give it a watch.
Final Rating: 69
- Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (mrmovietimes.com)
- The VINCENT PRICE of Fear / TCM in October (aurorasginjoint.com)
- Ginormous Vincent Price ring (dangerousminds.net)
- Conquering Your Fear (mikemartindesigns.wordpress.com)