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Halloween Retro 101: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

Film stills from William Castle's House on Haunted Hill.
Film stills from William Castle's House on Haunted Hill. Warner Bros.

In 1959, William Castle was the king of the gimmick film. With every release, his films included an element of audience participation that, while cheesy, was designed to frighten audiences out of their seats. For instance, when Castle released The Tingler, he implanted a device into each theatre seat that would shock audience members on cue during certain moments of the film. Finally, Castle and his team created a gimmick called Emergo, in which a skeleton, rigged on a wire, would fly out at the audience during the climax of the film. That film was House on Haunted Hill, by far Castle’s most popular contribution to the world of horror films. It has gone on to gain legendary status as a cult classic in the horror genre, and it is not hard to see why. The film is a romp from beginning to end, though not without a few scares.

House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted HillWarner Bros

As the film opens, we are given a brief introduction by Vincent Price, who plays wealthy millionaire, Fredrick Loren. He informs us that his wife is throwing a haunted house party, and that each of the guests has been offered ten thousand dollars up front, provided that they survive one night in the house on haunted hill. The guests all arrive in funeral cars, eagerly anticipating the night’s events. The guests include a handsome jet pilot named Lance Schroeder, a skeptical doctor named David Trent; an alcoholic who shares a tragic past with the house, named Watson Pritchard, a struggling gambler named Ruth Bridgers; and, last but not least, the sheepishly naïve Nora Manning, who we will find to be a bit unstable later on in the film. In any case, Nora really needs the money, as she supports her entire family.

The funeral cars spiral up the hill, until they finally reach their destination. Once inside, they introduce themselves briefly, until a falling chandelier crashes to the ground, almost killing poor Nora in the process. Shortly after this, we are treated to a lovely scene in which Frederick Loren and his femme fatale of a wife, Annabelle, verbally spar with one another in one of the many bedrooms in the house. Apparently, Annabelle has attempted to rid herself of Frederick on many occasions, most recently with the aid of arsenic. He suspects foul play on her part. She’s convinced that he is up to something as well. It’s not a good domestic situation, to say the least. She’s wife number four, and the only wife of Fredrick’s who has managed to live this long.

Meanwhile, Fredrick meets his guests in the living room to become acquainted over drinks. They all introduce themselves, and a few moments later, after a brief overview of the dark history of the house, Frederick warns them that the house will lock itself at midnight, and that there is no way out until morning. This place has barred windows, steel doors, and locks “like a vault”. It is here that things begin to take a grisly turn. Nora and Lance decide to explore the house on a whim. Nora catches sight of a ghost, while Lance gets caught behind a trap door. The more that Nora tries to warn the others, the more they disregard her claims, all making the assumption that she is a victim of hysteria. This causes Nora to break down mentally and emotionally. Her descent into madness is nothing short of hilarious. Soon, Nora begins to fear that Mr. Loren has set them all up for a murderous game. Let’s just say that giving out guns as party favors was probably not a good idea, as things go from bad to worse. You’ll be laughing all the way.

The cast of this film is absolutely wonderful. Vincent Price is his usual creepy self, while Carol Ohmart digs her teeth – and claws – into the role of the sexually repressed, money-grubbing temptress. Richard Long gives an awkward, alpha male performance as Lance Schroeder, while Carolyn Craig chews up the scenery as Nora, kicking and screaming all the way. Her performance is pure camp. Alan Marshal is appropriately slimy as Dr. David Trent, who constantly reminds everyone that ghosts are merely products of “hysteria”. He constantly diagnoses Nora as a victim of hysteria – “Nora, you look a little upset. Would you care for a sedative?” – and his character takes an unexpected turn near the end. Julie Mitchum (sister of Robert Mitchum, in her final film role) plays Ruth Bridgers, a compulsive gambler in desperate need of money. She is also fond of scotch, and swills it down liberally for the bulk of the film. Finally, Elisha Cook, Jr. has a wonderful time as Watson Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the dreaded house. He stumbles around for the length of the film, pouring drink after drink, while warning others of the ghosts – “They only come out at night. They whisper at each other, and then cry.”

Warner Brothers has released House on Haunted Hill in a pristine single-disc edition, which contains both the full and the widescreen versions of the film. The film looks better than it has in years. The mono soundtrack is crisp and clear, and Von Dexter’s theme music just swells during the opening credits. The DVD does not offer much in the way of special features; however, this is an excellent release from Warner Brothers, indeed. If you are in the mood for a camp classic, you will not be disappointed with William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill. It is a must-see for Halloween night.