|House on Haunted Hill (1959)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
Like The Haunting, this older horror movie got a big-scale remake in 1999; unlike The Haunting, the remake was quite watchable, despite some plot problems. But also unlike The Haunting, the original is no classic. It's entertaining, to be sure, with a great, silken, purring performance by the irreplaceable Vincent Price, but it's basically just a surprise-ending murder mystery with some haunted-house trappings.
House on Haunted Hill is actually better known for who directed the original -- William Castle -- and for its in-theater gimmick dubbed "Emergo" than it is for the movie itself. Which makes this DVD such a disappointment: there basically are no extras. The amusing trailer is included, there are some alternate languages, and the disc includes both the letterboxed and panned-and-scanned versions (which seems pointless in this case, since the print required minimal letterboxing).
The film cries out for the kind of treatment the Price-Castle followup, The Tingler, has received on DVD; that one has plenty of extras, and the same could have been done here. The DVD should have had biographies of William Castle, Vincent Price and writer Robb White; it should have had narration by someone, and it really should have had a full explanation of Castle's outrageous gimmick of "Emergo."
Those fortunate enough to see House on Haunted Hill in big cities when it was first released were treated to something unique. At two points in the film, the door on the front of a big box mounted next to the screen snapped open, and a glowing, inflated plastic skeleton drifted out over the audience on wires, then slid back into the box to await the next Emergo scene. Naturally, audiences didn't find this remotely scary, and naturally, the floating skeleton was hit with a lot of popcorn and soft drink containers -- but it was also entertaining, and put the film on the map. (That plus a great poster which unaccountably is not reproduced on this DVD box.)
But there are no references to Emergo anywhere on this DVD. What a shame, what a gyp.
On the other hand, while House on Haunted Hill has been released on video several times before, it's never looked or sounded this good; even if Warners was short-sighted enough not to include fun extras, they have done a bang-up job with the print itself.
Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren, who on the urging of his bitchy wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) has invited several people to spend the night in a famous haunted house. If they last until morning, they will each be given $10,000, and each of them needs money. Sure enough, spooky stuff starts happening, with ingenue Carolyn Craig being memorably scared in the wine cellar by a blank-eyed hag on wheels. She finds a head in her closet. Annabelle is evidently killed, but then Craig sees her floating outside her window while a hangman's noose coils around her feet. (In view of what the plot really is, this last bit is ridiculous.)
When Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.), owner of the house, points out that the wine cellar is equipped with an acid vat in the floor, you know that the vat will have to be used before the end of the movie, and sure enough, it is.
Robb White wrote the script, but doesn't seem to have taken it particularly seriously; he has the most fun with the sparring dialog given Price and Ohmart, and the actors play it to the hilt. Frederick and Annabelle hate each other, but they do so with a certain nasty wit: "Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?" Price murmurs. later, Ohmart responds, "Darling, the only ghoul in the house is you." His parting line is "Don't sit up all night thinking of ways to get rid of me -- it makes wrinkles." Price offers the guests party favors: each is presented with a small coffin, and in each coffin is a Meanwhile, Cook is amusingly ominous and spooky, giving what amounts to a dress rehearsal for his role as the landlord in Rosemary's Baby ten years later. The rest of the cast is serviceable, not memorable; the show belongs to Price, Ohmart and Cook. They, however, are so entertaining that the lack of roles for anyone else doesn't matter at all.
William Castle was around Hollywood for years, directing series entries as early as the mid-1940s. But when he made Macabre and insured the audience for death by fright, he found his true calling. For about ten years, he turned out one spooky/funny movie after another, most of which came equipped with a bizarre gimmick, such as the ass-buzzing "Percepto" of The Tingler and the "Punishment Poll" for Mr. Sardonicus. His movies were rarely more than competent, but he often communicated a kind of sub-Hitchcock ironic glee that was highly infectious, even when the movie itself was a lox.
Thanks mostly to Vincent Price and Robb White's nasty, funny dialog, House on Haunted Hill remains one of Castle's best-known movies. Warners should be thanked for the quality of the print, and growled at for leaving out the kind of fun extras a movie like this well and truly deserves.