Monday, October 17, 2011

House On Haunted Hill (1959)

Okay, take two!  After my first attempt at watching a haunted house film was unsuccessful (I blame The House of the Devil and its misleading title!  And my lack of research!), I opted for a classic.  House On Haunted Hill is quite unusual, if only because it appears to have aged well, at least for most critics, and most other horror films from the late 1950s have not.  I rather enjoyed The Bad Seed, another late-50s thriller --- would I be so lucky a second time?

First impressions made me think "not so much."  The film opens with a woman's screams, a villain's laughter, and a pitch-black screen.  Then, out of the darkness, Watson Pritchard's (Elisha Cook, Jr.'s) disembodied head zooms to the front of the screen and he begins to talk directly to the audience about the "only truly haunted house in the world." 
This is immediately followed by Frederick Loren's (Vincent Price's) face being superimposed over an image of the titular house as he takes his turn speaking to the audience.  He introduces all the characters and comments on them (his standard comment about his wife is that she is "so amusing").  He also introduces the premise: Frederick Loren is throwing a haunted house party for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart, who is "so amusing"), and has invited five guests.  The guests are all strangers and have never met the Lorens; Frederick has enticed them to spend the night in this supposedly haunted house by offering a $10,000 prize (roughly a billion kajillion dollars in 2011 money) to anyone who survives the evening.  What's the catch?  The only exit is on a timer, so if you come in, the doors won't open until morning.
As if regular Vincent Price isn't creepy enough, now we have floating ghost-head Price
Strangely, this is where the narration ends.  The five strangers arrive, are greeted by Frederick, and are told the rules --- and each is given a loaded pistol.  The guests were chosen to represent a cross-section of the population (not racially, of course), and all are in desperate need of that ten grand.  The only guest who takes the idea of the house being haunted is Watson (who, incidentally, owns the building), and takes the guests on a little tour, pointing out where different people have been murdered within the building.  Everyone else is treating the evening with a grain of salt, and are waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop.  That shoe is Annabelle's suicide.
"She's so amusing."
Well, it may look like suicide, but the circumstances of her death indicate that she couldn't have done it unassisted.  Someone in that house either helped Annabelle die or murdered her.  Aren't those just two ways of saying the same thing?  From this point forward, it doesn't feel much like a game at all, and the more creepy things happen, the less the guests trust each other.  But should they be fearing each other, or the unruly spirits of the house?
Someone's getting pimp/ghost-slapped tonight!

The atmosphere in this House On Haunted Hill is decent, although pretty typical.   There are a lot of cobwebs, everything seems to creak, and the doors sometimes open or close without explanation.  The set pieces are fairly standard, except in the basement, where a trapdoor leads to a vat of acid in the ground.  Of course there is a vat of acid in the basement.  Why wouldn't there be?
What is that on the table?  A spider amusement park?

Sure, House On Haunted Hill is a little bit campy --- it has Vincent Price, after all --- and the floating head introductions are a telling nod to the matinee audiences that were the film's intended audience.  I was surprised to see relatively few outright scares in the film.  Yes, there are a few moments that are designed to startle the viewer...
...but they are really just meant to set the stage.  I was expected more shock tactics, honestly.  Instead, this is a relatively moody PG-quality horror picture.

The film's greatest asset is Vincent Price.  His voice is notoriously spooky (and campy), and it is used very well here.  The hateful banter between Price and Carol Ohmart is quite good and stands out in a script that is otherwise lackluster.  The other actors --- Richard Long as a hero type, Alan Marshal as a skeptical psychiatrist, Carolyn Craig as a hysterical everywoman, Julie Mitchum as a smart lady, and Elisha Cook as a drunken believer in ghosts --- play their parts with varying degrees of effectiveness, but this is definitely Price's picture.  My favorite supporting actor was definitely Cook, as this is another example of how well he can play distressed failures.  My least favorite cast member was Craig, who is unfortunately the main character.  She was obviously hired for her ability to scream; the rest of her lines sound like she is reading them off cue cards. 
Carolyn Craig's only believable line

William Castle's direction on House On Haunted Hill is pretty standard.  The black-and-white definitely helps establish the creepy mood, but I think that was just a happy accident.  Castle's camerawork and the way he frames shots are pretty boring for a horror movie.  He doesn't use any tricks to build suspense or use any quick cuts to make you question what you have seen.  If anything, his work leans more toward unintentionally campy and cheap (see: opening scene).  On the bright side, he did put together a cohesive story.  Unfortunately, that story is full of holes, especially whenever one of the few special effects in the film are featured.  I do have one or two burning questions, though.  SPOILER ALERT: Okay, I get that Annabelle and the doctor were working together to try and get stupid Carolyn Craig to shoot Frederick Loren.  It's stupid and convoluted, but in the same way that a Scooby-Doo plot is, and don't they both have the same target audience?  But why is their plan to dump Fred's body in the acid?  Wouldn't they need a body for Annabelle to get the inheritance?  My other point is less of a question than it is an expression of disbelief.  Frederick foils the plot to kill him and instead kills the plotters.  He then states that he is ready to go on trial.  Um.  Really?  Fine.  You're guilty of premeditated self-defense, also known as murder. 

Surprisingly, I didn't mind those problems.  Sure, the acting is mediocre aside from Price.  Yes, the plot is pretty ridiculous when all is said and done.  Even with those problems, House On Haunted Hill still stands up as a somewhat entertaining picture.  Is it going to scare you?  Not if you are old enough to drive, but the older you are, the more you will appreciate the campiness of it.  It's not a horrible movie, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Price's line delivery.  This is a great movie to have fun with, because it's not painfully bad, but there are a lot of things to mock.  I might try and squeeze in another viewing later this month and give its Rifftrax a try.

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