[This Halloween season, we're paying tribute to classic horror cinema by celebrating films released before 1970! Check back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic horror films, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Halloween 2019 special features!]
“Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here.” While William Castle didn’t invent the “strangers meeting in a singular location under sinister circumstances” motif that was at the heart of House on Haunted Hill back in 1959 (Agatha Christie brought that into the fold decades prior with her iconic mystery novels, and her storytelling influence is undoubtedly felt here), it was Castle’s late ’50s shocker that repopularized it amongst movie fans in America, with the help of his “Emergo” gimmicks, and building on the grand success of Macabre just a year prior.
Castle put out a lot of memorable horror jaunts during his career, and even 60 years since House on Haunted Hill first thrilled audiences with its supernaturally charged mystery, its influence looms over the realm of genre storytelling and is still being felt today. Like many of Castle’s genre efforts, it delivered up immersive thrills and chills, and House became yet another major turning point in Castle’s career as well, cementing his legacy as the true king of B-Movies and an independent film producer outside of the Hollywood system.
If you’ve somehow never seen House on Haunted Hill, or its 1999 remake, which shares many of the original’s plot points, the setup is straightforward: a playboy millionaire named Frederick Loren (the legendary Vincent Price) is throwing a haunted house party in honor of his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), and invites five strangers to stay with them in the property overnight, promising to award them each $10,000 if they can make it until the morning. The guests who take Mr. Loren up on his unconventional offer include test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), noted columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), who works for one of Frederick’s companies, and Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), the man who owns the titular home at the center of the House on Haunted Hill.
As the night unfolds, a series of strange occurrences begin to plague the party guests, as doors mysterious close, a chandelier falls, an organ somehow plays itself, and it's evident that those stuck inside the home are in mortal danger—but from who, or what, exactly remains to be seen.
While it’s been heralded for decades now as a tale of supernatural horror, what’s interesting to me is that technically, that categorization is up for debate, once the full game that is afoot in House is revealed, where it’s not ghosts that are terrorizing the partygoers, it’s actually Annabelle and her secret lover, Dr. Trent, behind the eerie events that take place. As it turns out, the pair have put together this elaborate ruse to drive the unsuspecting Nora to the brink of insanity, so much so that she would shoot Mr. Loren in her state of frenzy, allowing his wife to run off with her new suitor, with no one being the wiser.
And while there are some seemingly supernatural forces at play in House on Haunted Hill, we technically don’t really see any actual ghosts, making the house’s phantasmal status up for debate. Some may feel differently, but that is one of the aspects that I absolutely love about the film, because in many ways, I feel like it would eventually go on to influence horror movies like April Fool's Day, where you think there’s a serial killer on the loose, but in reality, it’s all an elaborate setup for a college co-ed to try out her plan to create a murder mystery bed and breakfast. Some may feel differently, but I’m always up for a directorial bait-and-switch, if it serves the story properly, which it very much does in House on Haunted Hill.
To Watson Pritchard, though, he’s convinced that there’s an otherworldly presence (or seven) haunting his abode, and it’s his mania that fuels the paranoia rippling below the surface of Robb White’s script for House on Haunted Hill, which is probably a big reason why it’s a film that continues be a favorite amongst old-school horror fans. In fact, I’ve seen House probably more than 40 times, and I still get a chuckle out of watching a manipulated skeleton rise from an acid-filled pit to terrorize Annabelle, and then after she meets her grisly fate, we watch as Frederick emerges wearing a contraption of levers and pulleys, allowing audiences to see that he knew exactly what his scheming wife and her paramour were up to all along, and was playing a much different (and more effective) game in the long run.
Also, just a side note, but I love that Elisha Cook, who portrays Pritchard here, would go on to play Weasel Phillips in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot miniseries, which is another story where a house with reputation for being evil to its core is a driving force in the narrative. Those are the little through lines in genre filmmaking that never fail to make me smile.
But, despite the fact that the film is now 60 years old, there’s still a timeliness to House on Haunted Hill’s story, where people are driven by their need for money, so much so that they are willing to put themselves, or others, in harm’s way so that they can score a big payday. In fact, characters being motivated by their own economic circumstances is a theme that probably resonates more so in the present than ever before, which is why we’ve seen films like Would You Rather?, Creep, Escape Room, and 13 Sins being released throughout the last decade, clearly a response to how our own fiscal concerns can provide the fuel for our own nightmares.
For me, one of the films that I think House on Haunted Hill inspired in a myriad of ways is Jonathan Lynn’s Clue, which may have been based on the popular board game, but there’s enough connective tissue between both films where it wouldn’t be completely unfounded to say that many of Clue’s set pieces and thematic elements owe a great deal to what Castle created with House back in 1959. Between bringing together a group of strangers at the behest of an unusual host, the lavish locale the guests cannot escape from, and a plot driven by murderous deeds, Clue definitely owes a lot to House on Haunted Hill, albeit I believe that Lynn took everything even further to greater success (I’ve always thought House on Haunted Hill’s abrupt ending is a bit underwhelming in comparison to all that precedes it).
That being said, House on Haunted Hill is still arguably one of the most influential and entertaining horror movies of its time, and clocking in at a breezy 74 minutes, it makes for the perfect cinematic aperitif to enjoy during the Halloween season. Plus, who can resist a movie where Vincent Price hands out party favors in coffin-shaped boxes? Not me.
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