Night #6: House On Haunted Hill (1959)

Directed By: William Castle

We have a bit of an about turn today compared to yesterday’s flick, though you could argue it shares some thematic qualities with yesterday’s offering. Mainly in that they’re just both about harmless, spooky fun.

A bickering couple host a dinner party in a genuine haunted house. If the five guests stay the night they’ll each earn $10,000 for their troubles and with Vincent Price at the head of the table you’re bound to get some sinister goings on. So we have the nervous drunk who owns the house (But doesn’t live there) and who barely made it through one night alive, there’s a psychiatrist, a secretary, a writer and a fighter pilot. All of them a cross section of society and all of them needing the money.

Things get going pretty quickly, and given that the movie is 71 minutes long they really have to. Amusingly, all the guests arrive in hearses and the only door out is a steel one that’s locked at midnight by the caretakers (Maybe I missed something, but doesn’t this mean they have to stay, and therefore as long as they’re alive they’ll all get the money?). From there, the movie piles on the scares – such as they are – and ends with a nice fourth wall breaking moment.

This was one of two movies that Vincent Price made with the legendary William Castle, who was a showman just as much as he was a director. He often padded his movies out with gimmicks, to great success. House On Haunted Hill was presented with “Emergo”, in which a fluorescent skeleton would swoop over the heads of theatre goers at a pivotal moment. For their other colaboration, The Tingler, Castle designed a gimmick, called “Percepto” in which buzzers placed under the seats of audience members would vibrate when the monster was on screen. A lot of this is detailed in Joe Dante’s fantastic Matinee in which John Goodman plays a Castle in everything but name only (“Mant! Half man…half ant!”) though of course, a lot of these gimmicks are lost when watching it at home. For instance, this movie opens with just a black screen and the shrill cries of a screaming woman. For audience members watching in a dark room on a big screen the effect must’ve been great, but at home I just thought I had the TV too loud. Amusingly enough that opening was so effective that it gave rise to the idea of spooky halloween soundtracks, which is just ambient sounds and blood-curdling screams.

As for the movie itself. It’s a spooky bit of fun that does not, for one second, make a bit of sense. And that’s alright, not everything has to. This isn’t the type of genre movie that carries a message, or has rich thematic elements. It’s essentially like a typical episode of Tales From The Crypt whereby schemers get schemed mixed with Ten Little Indians. Logic be damned. Many impossible things happen here, but it doesn’t matter one bit when you get to hear Price deliver lines like “Do you remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?” in that delicious tone of his.

So it’s not going to keep you up at night, and I’ve cooked meals that have taken longer than it takes to watch this, but it is memorable, and it is fun and if you can get yourself a swooping skeleton then you’re going to have yourself a blast.

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