Sunday, March 11, 2018

Visiting the "House on Haunted Hill"

Have you ever been invited to a (haunted) house party? That's the plot of House on Haunted Hill, a delightfully spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced and directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. If you survive the night in this terrifying place, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money Loren's offering for one reason or another. He hands out fun party favors such as handguns that are stored in little coffins! One of the guests is Watson Pritchard, who knows a great deal about the shall we say, colorful history of the house. He warns everyone that it's a very bad idea to stay the night. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard, Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny and The Professor), and Julie Mitchum, sister of actor Robert Mitchum.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was on screen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits from the screen. In House on Haunted Hill's theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a tremendous amount of financial success with his films. His movies were aimed primarily at teenagers, who ate them up like the candy from the theatre's concessions stand. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America. 

A gathering of guests at the House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. The movie features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies as part of the scares and shocks. But is there a non- supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our suave host know more than he's telling? Price is at his witty, menacing best and gets most of the film’s choice dialogue, though Cook also gets to deliver some, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing line. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of "found footage" horror films and endless sequels to movies like Saw, but that's exactly why it's such great fun. 

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD and Blu-ray editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is a story about a B movie producer (played by John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle. Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of classic 50s and 60s sci-fi, horror and fantasy films. Here’s a link to the trailer for House on Haunted Hill

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