I’ve recently spent a lot of time concentrating my movie watching on the horror and science fiction movies of the 1950s. This has proven to be a wonderfully entertaining project that’s allowed me to revisit movies I haven’t seen since I was a child as well as see new films that have been a joy to discover. Such was the case with William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill”, a movie that I had heard of but never had the opportunity to catch up with. Now after finally seeing it, I can honestly say that I was thoroughly entertained. It’s a solid mixture of eerie tension and classic camp presented through a simple yet effective story.
The great Vincent Price stars as a mysterious millionaire named Frederick Loren. Imagine that, Price playing a mysterious character. Loren has rented a house with a very violent history and has invited five individuals to spend the night there. He bribes each with the possibility of making $10,000 each. All they have to do is live through the night. The entire thing is painted to be some type of twisted party for his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). But soon the guests are terrorized by several unexplained occurrences and they begin to question whether or not the house is haunted or if they are in the middle of something much more sinister.
Of course we ask ourselves why these people would ever agree to come to such a creepy place to begin with. But in the opening of the movie, as the five are each brought to the house in their own hearse, we learn that each has their own important need for the money. As the story unfolds, I found myself being suspicious of several of the people while never being able to finger any of them. That’s a mark of good, suspenseful storytelling. Now I have to admit, as with many of these movies I kept thinking of better methods the group could use to ensure their survival. But that’s nitpicking. Afterall, wouldn’t things be really boring if they all used their brains?
The movie has several creepy effects that I must admit were quite gruesome considering the time the movie was released. Admittedly there were also some dated special effects that I couldn’t help smile at, but that were also part of the charm of watching these classic horror pictures. Castle’s inventive techniques were quite clever despite the small budget he had to work with. The atmosphere is pitch perfect and I found it easy to get lost in the spooky old house where the entire movie takes place.
Castle was known for his affection for horror and his numerous low-budget B-movies became a fixture in 1950s cinema. One thing that audiences often times experienced when watching one of Castle’s pictures was some type of theater gimmick. When “House on Haunted Hill” was released, moviegoers were treated to a floating skeleton that floated across the theater during a certain moment in the film. While we don’t get to experience that type of old-school fun when we watch the film, it’s still a highly entertaining piece of classic horror filmmaking wrapped up in a tight, compact 75 minute package.
“House on Haunted Hill” is a great example of how much fun the horror films of that period could be. Sure there’s some cheesy, stilted dialogue, the story is simple, and the effects aren’t going to satisfy someone expecting the best. But it’s a lesson in classic horror led by the master himself, Vincent Price. And considering much of the so-called “horror” that we get today, this was even more refreshing.