The delightful Gill and Barry asked me to take part in a blogathon celebrating the career of Vincent Price. I naturally obliged and decided to write about the devilish horror with a mischief loving edge, House on Haunted Hill.
A campy and creepy horror movie from William Castle that may show its age but is still rightfully entertaining due to some clever sleight of hand trickery and scintillating script, House on Haunted comes highly recommended from me.
Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren(Vincent Price) invites five people to a haunted house party and promises to pay each $10,000 if they can stay the night there. The doors will be locked from midnight with no discernible way out. The house has been the sight of many a grisly event since it was built centuries before.None of the people invited really know one another, the only thing that links them is a need for money. They are rugged test pilot Lance Schroeder(Richard Long), ageing newspaper columnist with a gambling problem, Ruth Bridges(Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist who specialises in hysteria Dr. David Trent(Alan Marshal), the worried worker at one of Loren’s companies, Nora Manning(Carolyn Craig) and the owner of the property Watson Pritchard(Elisha Cook Jr.), who is scared stiff of the place and drops ominous warnings about ghosts. Loren’s wife, a mysterious and beautiful woman named Annabelle(Carol Ohmart) is supposed to be the one who wanted the party, but we see that her union with Loren is toxic and constantly involved in a game of oneupmanship that once turned near fatal with a poisoning. With the guests assembled and a little confused as to why they would all be invited, the night starts. Soon enough, creepy things start to happen around the spooky dwelling; there’s a nasty surprise in the cellar , Loren’s seductive wife drops hints that her life is in mortal danger from her jealous husband but could be up to something and with everyone locked in, deception stats to set in. But just who will make it through to morning and is there really a haunting going on?
William Castle was adept at churning films like this out with great success. He even used a gimmick of a floating skeleton in the cinema screenings for mimic one of the ghosts in skeleton form for novelty value. The effect is pretty neat here( obviously it doesn’t come off the screen), if a little showing it’s age in terms of effects and retains a somewhat kitsch appeal. Still there are genuinely creepy and twisty moments that reveal that House on Haunted Hill is rather clever at fooling us beneath the slightly goofy and campy surface. It’s akin to a dangerous cat and music game of Cluedo, just infused with a good deal of menace. Creepiness and campiness abound here with neither winning out as overruling the other; rather settling for a compromise that’s at times tongue in cheek and others atmospherically fun to watch. There’s a certain sense of impishness and skullduggery to events here that more than compensates for dated areas. The script is the main source of greatness here, playing events out as tongue in cheek and loaded with suspense. Vincent Price sinks his teeth into many a darkly amusing one liner and has a great moment of speaking directly to the audience. The score is pretty impressive, with the repeating sounds of a haunting and distorted voice signifying something very sinister bubbling away.
Now we come to the man of the hour, the one and only Vincent Price. Using his well cultured and spine chilling voice yo great effect as well as darkness and devilish charm , Price is the cherry on top of this film. You can sense he’s having a lot of fun being so devious, naughty and slithering in sinister nature and it shows in a very entertaining performance from the horror icon. Vincent Price is at some of his most charming and yet chilling here. Carol Ohmart makes an impression as the vampy wife of Loren; her deep voice and dazzling eyes suggesting someone passionate and scheming but maybe afraid. Elisha Cook Jr seems born to play the timid owner of the house who is as twitchy as a mouse in a room full of hungry cats. His character is the main introduction to their possibly being ghosts afoot, though its left ambiguous as is his integral character. The rest of the cast are serviceable enough, but the film ultimately belongs to Vincent Price.
So while creaky in places, House on Haunted Hill is still a good old-fashioned horror mystery laced with dark humour and Vincent Price on sinister and urbane form.