Please do not confuse the film I am about to review with the godawful remake, for anyone put off by this total load of crapola I urge you to have a rethink and check out the William Castle original if you haven’t already. So bad was this reworking of the original it was one of the few films I have actually switched off in the first 15 minutes but the less time spent on discussing this the better.
So why is the original so infinitely better than the revolting remake? Well for a start it stars the amazing Vincent Price, who would have thought a chance meeting in a coffee shop would lead him to one of his most memorable roles. His role as the dastardly and eccentric millionaire Loren is among one of my personal favourites. All his hallmarks are here, the camp line delivery, the deadpan humour and loaded comments which are like a double-edged sword, but one thing I enjoyed about his performance here immensely is that this outrageous millionaire is slightly nastier than some of his other more overtly comic roles. The interplay between Price and his onscreen wife Carol Ohmart is brilliant, as they feed off each other in this twisted love/hate relationship.
William Castle was an odd character, B Movie legend who never really made it out of this realm, but the love he put into marketing his movies is inspirational. Known for his gimmicks House was shot in Emergo, which basically involved an inflatable skeleton cruising across the audience at a the climax of the movie, what fun! But House on Haunted Hill is not all about the gimmicks, it’s creepy, it’s camp, it’s spooky and also contains one of the best twist endings ever. So much so the film caught the attention of Hitchcock, a director who had in fact inspired Castle.
Sinister and warped millionaire Federick Loren seems to have more money than sense when he invites five people to his overnight party with a twist, if they can survive the night they can claim the sum of $10,000. Loren touts this as his fourth wife Annabel’s idea and as each of the characters agree the house is locked down for the night and the fun begins. What ensues is a story of the supernatural and murder mystery as it twists and turns it is hard to predict where it will end up all adding up to one hell of a climax.
House on Haunted Hill is so loaded with tropes it is a spooktastic event worth watching. The creepy elements of the haunted house genre are played to full effect, dark, brooding, lurking corners, acid vats, ghostly happenings, hanging, decapitated heads, and a skeleton to top all skeletons, as Castle capitalizes to full shock effect. Some of the scenes are actually quite claustrophobic with the lighter moments providing a welcome relief. As I have mentioned before however it is the onscreen relationship of Price and Ohmart that make the feature. Price known for his less than serious portrayal of horror characters makes an attempt to step things up a gear here as millionaire Loren, his acid tongue lashing an obvious loathing for his golddigging fourth wife Ohmart as the two seem locked in a less than healthy relationship. Ohmart bounces brilliantly off Price who is similarly frustrated as the wife of this wealthy former playboy, and it is apparent there is no love lost between the two. Another fantastic addition to the cast is Carolyn Craig as Nora Manning who becomes increasingly hysterical as the story progresses, her place in the wider story becomes lamentable as it develops and the true facts come to light. Likewise I have to say I loved the crazy, alcohol fuelled and inexplicable rantings of Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pitchard (the owner of the house), whose constant rhetoric of how the dead are coming provide much annoyance to Price in this already fraught situation.
When you look into the whys and wherefores of how House on Haunted Hill works it becomes apparent that some artistic licence has been taken with the logistics of how certain events get from x to y. Some of the elements are simply incredulous however you have to take this with a pinch of salt and just go with it to get the full enjoyment out of the picture. While there are some clever twists and the ending is sure to make you smile there are no deep messages here, and there is some ambiguity surrounding the ending of the film, which is what I like about it. It simply is what it is, a light and entertaining horror piece. There are some inspired little touches as well with Price having his guests arrive in funeral cars, and providing guests with their own guns complete with little coffin cases, all adding to the flamboyant nature of this movie. The films orgins are embedded deep in fantasy and if you take everything presented here at face value you are in for a fun experience. I would normally be picking holes out of something if I did not think it worked, but for some reason I can forgive William Castle for some of his misgivings because his intentions were to entertain, and House on Haunted Hill certainly does that.
One thing that is for sure is teenage audiences lapped up Castle’s gimmicky brand of camp horror with his unique take on audience interaction, and Vincent Price provides a gleeful anecdote regarding this in Tom Weaver’s book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers “The opening night of House on Haunted Hill, I was in a little theatre in Baltimore. In the movie, I reeled this skeleton in using a winch, and then there’d be a real skeleton in the theatre that would shoot over the audience. Well, I was in this theatre with a great many young people in it – and they panicked! And they knocked all the seats out of the theatre! They just took down the first five rows. I loved it!”. Castle was directly inspired by another film I am reviewing for part of my Films in the Public Domain piece Les Diaboliques and states in his autobiography ‘‘I want to scare the pants off America. When that audience gave that ﬁnal collective scream, I know that’s where I wanted to take them—only I want louder screams, more horror, more excitement’’. It was Castle’s talent that he actually created an occasion in watching one of his films, in which pantomime elements were in full force to extract complete terror from the audience participants.
Gimmicks aside House on Haunted Hill still remains a fun and highly entertaining piece of horror history the likes of which can only exist in this era in filmmaking. A highlight in Vincent Price’s lengthy career which drew the attentions of master of the macabre Alfred Hitchcock himself, William Castle left a legacy which can never be forgotten. Original, funny, clever and twisted, it remains a forerunner in the genre, not to be missed.