House On Haunted Hill (1959)

OCTOBER 2, 2013

GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

Every horror fan knows who Vincent Price is, but unless you were around at the time (or have done your homework), you might assume he was already an icon when he signed on to House On Haunted Hill for William Castle back in 1958. But in fact it's only his 4th horror movie EVER (one of which was The Fly, where he played a supporting character), which in a way makes his performance all the more spectacular - there's something sort of iconic about the role and how it is used in the film, to the extent that you might assume the script possibly called for a "Vincent Price type" and then they just went ahead and got the real thing. So if you, like me, adore the man and his horror roles - this is the one that started it all, really (his other two films - House of Wax and Mad Magician, were years prior and he was still doing costume epics and musicals - after this such films were the exception, not the rule).

That it's a fun flick makes it all the more essential viewing, especially during this time of the year. Sure, it probably won't cause any nightmares the way The Haunting would a couple years later, but it's so damn ENTERTAINING that it hardly matters, and it's not like any William Castle flick is known for terrorizing its audience anyway. No, he was all about the showmanship and the gimmicks, with the movies being just part of the spectacle (at least at this point in his career). And unlike The Tingler, this one works even without the bells and whistles ("Emergo", in this case - a skeleton that would float over the audience at key moments in the film), taking an "Old Dark House" scenario and adding Price to the mix. And it's better than most of those ODH movies from the 30s and 40s; the pacing is better for one thing (Price introduces each of our characters via voiceover at the top of the film, saving some time on doing it the traditional way), and it's not about someone trying to steal an inheritance from their niece or whatever, so that's a big plus.

Plus (spoiler for 54 year old movie ahead!), I don't know if it's intentional or not, but either way it's kind of genius that the not-always-great effects make sense in the plot, since we find out that Price has literally been pulling the strings on many of its events. The reveal doesn't quite explain everything (how'd they get the wife on the 2nd floor window?), but it's so funny to me that anytime you see a string or a shitty prop, you can justify it as realism! Of course, this lessens the amount of true scares the movie can offer (not to mention the possible body count - Price isn't going to kill these random folks), but it still has some fun little jumps, and naturally makes for a fine choice to show your kids if the season has gotten them begging you to watch some horror movies.

But if they're too young they likely won't be able to fully appreciate the dry banter between Price and Carol Ohmart as his wife Annabelle. There's a wonderful bit where he's talking to their guests and says "If I die tonight..." and then pauses to laugh and give a knowing look in his wife's direction - I've seen the movie more than once and it cracks me up every time. Indeed, the one thing I liked about the remake was that it retained the love-hate relationship between these two characters, with Geoffrey Rush having a ball in the Price role (and the ravishing Famke Janssen in Ohmart's), and it's that sense of playfulness that also elevates this above most films in the sub-genre, which were content to have bland heroes and heroines going through the motions at their center. I'm kind of curious how well received Price's performance was in 1959 - again, he's an icon now, and it's hard to remember that he WASN'T when this was originally released. It feels like a pretty typical kind of character for the actor, but back then - 4-5 years after his other horror turns - it might have been oft-putting. "Why's the guy from Ten Commandments being so sinister?"

The downside is, he's so damn fun that it makes the other characters kind of boring in comparison, and the movie can be a touch draggy when he's not around. Hero Richard Long is handsome and charming, but watching him wander around looking for hidden rooms or comforting Carolyn Craig every time she gets scared will never be as entertaining as watching Price and Ohmart spar. Elisha Cook Jr. is also on hand, playing one of his several dozen "scared, kind of drunk guy" characters, and I can only hope if ghosts ARE real that he is currently haunting the fuck out of whoever cast Chris Kattan to fill his role in the remake. I mean, sure, Price is irreplaceable but you can certainly do worse than Geoffrey Rush, and Janssen was a step up as far as I'm concerned. But KATTAN? That's insulting! But back on point, I wish some of its 75 minutes were devoted to more scenes of the entire cast interacting (usually fun) or maybe some more action for Long - it'd be even more fun and take some of the weight off of Price's shoulders.

This is the 2nd "classic" I've watched this month (yesterday's Frankenstein was the first); I'm putting together a list of "must see" movies for October and also looking for ones I've never actually reviewed on HMAD during the old days (I can't believe it's been over 6 months since I quit the daily part), plus I'm on a bit of a Price kick thanks to Scream Factory's new boxed set. However that's on Blu-ray and I'm stuck at work with only a DVD player, so it had to suffice until I got home and I honestly couldn't remember if it was any good. But I needn't have feared - this is a perfect movie for the season and holds up splendidly, and thanks to its public domain status chances are you already own a copy on one multi-pack or another (I think I have 3 copies myself). I doubt there are enough skeletons left to do any proper "Emergo" screenings, but if it's playing at your local repertory theater I highly encourage seeing it on a big screen.

What say you?

2 comments:

  1. I didn't know about the Scream Factory box set, thanks for mentioning that! After looking, I wish it had more movies on it, but I think I could probably say that about any collection of Price's movies.

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  2. I LOVE this movie. Vincent Price just was awesome in it and is the main reason I rewatched it so many times.

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