When House on Haunted Hill played in theatres, producer/director William Castle enhanced screenings of the movie with a fascinating gimmick. This one was called “Emergo,” and it involved a complex pulley system that allowed a fake glow-in-the-dark skeleton to fly over the audience's head during key moments in the film. It was the first of many gimmicks Castle would employ over the years: The Tingler came with vibrating seats, Homicidal had a built-in “fright break” (allowing terrified audience members an opportunity to leave and get a refund while braver souls mocked them), and Mr. Sardonicus allowed audience members to vote on the film's ending. These are the sort of things that make Castle's movies a little harder to appreciate on their own: Castle didn't just make movies, he made experiences. Still, even without the benefit of outlandish gimmicks, House on Haunted Hill is a pretty entertaining watch (and one of Castle's finest flicks).
The film offers an enjoyably simplistic set-up: eccentric millionaire Frederik Loren (Vincent Price, Laura) and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart, The Scarlet Hour) have decided to rent a “haunted house” and throw a small party there. Frederik has invited five guests: a psychiatrist (Alan Marshall, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), a newspaper columnist (Julie Mitchum, The Ten Commandments), a test pilot (Richard Long, The Stranger), a secretary (Carolyn Craig, Portland Expose) and the house's nervous owner (Elisha Cook, The Killing). Loren has made all five of the guests an enticing offer: if they can endure the entire night, they'll receive $10,000 in the morning. Some are braver than others and some are more superstitious than others, but they all need the money.
Naturally, it isn't long before funny things start happening. Chandeliers crash without warning, blood drips from the ceiling, mysterious sounds are heard and unusual things are seen. As in many haunted house movies, there's a question about whether we're dealing with actual ghosts or merely with a diabolical individual who likes playing on the fears of others. Loren is the most natural suspect of course, partially because he's the one who arranged the whole thing but mostly because he's played by Vincent Price, who projects murderous playfulness even when he's playing the victim.
As you might expect, Price's performance is hands-down the most entertaining thing in the film. He's at his scene-stealing best, playing Loren with the sort of arch slyness that he brought to so many of his roles over the years. He's clearly a slippery character – we're told that he's been married four times, and that his three previous wives died rather mysterious deaths – but his wife has a similarly sinister streak, not-so-secretly plotting to murder her husband and find a way to steal his money. Frederick and Annabelle openly acknowledge their mutual contempt, and we wonder if their obvious desire to kill each other translates into a desire to kill party guests. Their scenes together are a delight.
The guests themselves are slightly less interesting, mostly because they're all reduced to playing “types” - the cocky one, the shy one, etc. The most memorable guest is the fearful homeowner, largely because Cook's face is such an expressive portrait of gloom and terror (he's so effectively distraught over the whole affair that the film opens with his disembodied head predicting terrible things to come). Still, as in many Agatha Christie mysteries, the supporting characters are ultimately less important than the mechanics of the plot... and, in this case, the mechanics of Castle's “Emergo” rig.
One final note, if you'll permit me to speak frankly on a divisive issue. This is an old-school horror movie that feels very much like a product of its era, but there's one element that has a curious resonance today. In one scene, Annabelle decides to give all of the guests a special party favor: everyone gets their own handgun. These guns are supposed to make the frightened guests feel a little more secure (and they do), but Castle knows something many Americans (past and present) don't: people staying in a house filled with guns are inevitably in greater danger than people staying in a gun-free home. Fear and guns are a lethal combination, and this haunted house – indeed, this country as a whole – has plenty of both.
House on Haunted Hill
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 75 minutes
Release Year: 1959