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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Retro Review: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

"Do you remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?"

From time to time here in the Vault, I've advocated for the importance of "having fun" with horror movies. Very often in our post-modern age, horror can become a dreary affair brimming with overly earnest angst aimed squarely at angry 20-something males whose sense of irony has been surgically removed. That's all well and good, but I also need a steady diet of fun, brainless, silly horror movies. Especially if they still manage to serve up some tasty frights along the way. And the original House on Haunted Hill is just such a picture.

Take William Castle, head schlock-meister of the Atomic Age, and add Vincent Price, the finest horror ham to ever intone a baritone cackle, and you have this rollercoaster ride of a movie. This is Price in his heyday as the king of the macabre, playing the role of Frederick Loren, a mysterious figure who offers $10,000 to a group of hapless individuals if they can stay the night in the titular house, a place dripping with the menace of past misdeeds. Is it really haunted? Or is it all part of Loren's mad scheme?

Along with one of the finest horror movie posters ever produced, this film benefits from never removing its tongue from its cheek. We are not meant to take it all very seriously, but rather, as with most Castle productions, we are supposed to have one hell of a hoot with it. Ideally, I imagine this would best be achieved watching it on the big screen--which, sad to say, I've never had the opportunity to do. Hopefully one day...

Carol Ohmart--who would also star a decade later in the cult classic Spider Baby--appears here alongside Price as Loren's bitter wife Annabelle. These two have some of the most delicious dialogue in the film, including a priceless (sorry) exchange that includes the unforgettable line at the top of this post. Robb White, who also wrote the scripts for Castle classics The Tingler and 13 Ghosts, is to be commended for a sharp and witty screenplay that greatly adds to the camp value.

Yes, much of the effects are cheesy--with the floating skeleton being particularly notorious in the annals of horror movie history. But I defy anyone to tell me that they didn't lose ten years of their life when that crazy old crone pops up behind the girl. You know the scene I'm talking about... For my money, the mother of all jump scares!

There is no doubt that this was one of the most influential fright flicks of its era. It raked in a ton of cash, and helped reinvigorate the more gothic-flavored horror film after a decade of giant-radioactive-monster movies. It's even been said that this was the movie that inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make his first bona fide horror movie--Psycho.

As I've said, this is Vincent Price perfectly hitting his stride as the master of on-screen creepiness. It had been some years since House of Wax put him on the map, and his collaborations with Castle would later lead to a legendary partnership with Roger Corman in the 1960s. To see him thoroughly relishing his role in Haunted Hill--as he always seemed to do--is to see a true legend at work. It's easy to see why this was the time frame in which he became the go-to guy for studios looking to class up their horror pictures.

The first of Castle's horror efforts, House on Haunted Hill was also arguably his best (with the obvious exception of Rosemary's Baby, which he only produced and did not direct). Grab it, get some friends together, nuke up some popcorn, and get ready to thrill, giggle and shudder. William Castle perfected the concept of horror-movie-as-funhouse, and this one is the greatest example.


Monster Scholar said...

One of Price's best outside the Roger Corman Poe films. The skeleton scene with the acid still genuinely makes my heart race, even on YouTube.

gord said...

The old lady in the film is one of the most terrifying people/things I've ever seen in a movie.

Jed Raven said...

Great film. Your review has put me right in the mood to watch it again :)

drumdiva said...

The old lady was terrifying, yes, but that skeleton scared the crap out of me when I was a kid!

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