William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” has all the ingredients of any
great party; transportation in a hearse, loaded handguns for party favours and
the promise of $10,000 for anyone willing to spend twelve hours trapped in a
supposedly haunted house. From the opening seconds of the film, horror icon Vincent
Price invites you all to the party, “there’ll be food, and drink, and
ghosts…and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited.” Thus begins one of
the best, campiest and more macabre films of the 1950’s b-movie explosion.

The film stars Vincent Price as Fredrick Loren, a sinister millionaire
currently married to his fourth wife, Annabelle. Throwing a haunted house party
in her honour, Price invites five strangers to spend the night in the house. The
party guests include a test pilot, a newspaper journalist, the troubled and
terrified owner of the house, a crooked psychiatrist and a young woman who
works for Loren – all sharing the same need for money.  As the evening progresses ghosts, severed
heads, suicide and mass hysteria ensure, as a wicked game of cat and mouse
between husband and wife play out to the backdrop of the haunted mansion.

What sets the film apart from other horror films from this era was the
film’s darkly funny tone. Castle, a seasoned vet of the horror film, saw Vincent
Price as the perfect blend of menace, flamboyance and humour, and uses this as
the staple of the film; Price’s dialogue oozes with a camp morbidity –
“Annabelle, you’re missing all the fun. Nora Manning was almost killed by a
falling chandelier and the pilot almost bashed his head in.” Price relishes all
his lines in the film with glee and his role as Mr Loren is definitely one of
his more entertaining and amusing.

What makes the film so good is that everything about it is fun to watch
– Fredrick and Annabelle’s hilarious dynamic as a husband and wife who hate
each other (“Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?” Price asks,
remembering with fondness), the completely over the top shocks and scares
including blood dripping ceilings, levitating old lady ghosts, faked suicide
and a vat of acid in the cellar – all designed to drive poor Nora to the point
of hysteria. It is clear the party guests are only there to be used as chess
pieces in the battle of wits between husband and wife.

The film is full of cheesy gimmicks, making watching it feel like a ride
on a ghost train. William Castle, one of my filmmaking heroes, understood the
importance of showmanship, and released a large portion of his films with a
special trick for the audience – for House on Haunted Hill; it was “Emergo” a
glow-in-the-dark skeleton who flies over the audience during the film. For his
next film, “The Tingler,” about a creature who attaches itself to its hosts
spinal cord who can only be killed by screaming, Castle equipped theatre seats
with electric buzzers – during the films final reel, the creature escapes into
the movie theatre and the audience was encouraged to “Scream! Scream for your
lives!” as the electric motors stuck to the underside of their seats jolt them.

House on Haunted Hill will always remain a b-movie classic, a perfect
blend of humor and terror wrapped up in one big campy, over the top haunted
mansion. From the opening sinister talking heads to the penultimate moment
where Price takes his hilariously macabre revenge on his deceitful and cheating
wife, the film proves you don’t need lots of money to throw a good party – just
enough horrific gimmicks to ensure your guests are driven to the point of
madness.

Review by James Alexander

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