Dueling Reviews: House on Haunted Hill

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We’re introducing a new feature, dueling reviews. Historian Dominic Buono and myself will write reviews for the same Halloween-friendly films until October 31st, published every Wednesday. First up is House on Haunted Hill.

Dominic’s Thoughts

House on Haunted Hill, released in 1959, is considered by many to be a classic of the horror genre, and starred horror icon Vincent Price in one of his most memorable roles. While the future guest star of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video is remarkably good in this film, the rest of the cast leaves quite a bit to be desired as well as special effects that were dated by its release and a script that needed at least one more rewrite to be truly great. While this is certainly no Hitchcock film, House on Haunted Hill is great to enjoy during the Halloween season.

The story of House on Haunted Hill begins with a narration by its principle characters, an attempt to instill a creepy overtone to the entire film. Unfortunately, this beginning must have felt hokey even by the standards of 1959 as each character essentially appears as a disembodied head. The plot itself is ludicrous, although this does lend itself well to the B-Movie vibe the entire film encapsulates. The idea of a group of people staying in a haunted house until dawn for a cash reward, in which each person is pitted against their fellows may seem cliché by today’s standards, at the time of its release House on Haunted Hill must have felt fresh. The finish of the film itself felt fun, but pales in comparison to the competition provided by Hitchcock and his superb directorial skills.

The set of the film does not lend itself to believability, obviously being filmed on a cheap soundstage somewhere in the Los Angeles area. This certainly detracts from the film, especially when the special effects themselves are of poor quality. It would be one thing to have mannequins on a dolly pulled by a string in a practical set, but in a controlled soundstage it seems a bit ridiculous when there are other methods that could be used for the effects to really stand out. In addition, for a haunted house that is relatively abandoned (aside from the caretakers) the location seems to be astonishingly well kept and well-appointed despite the aged staff. It should be pointed out that there is a literal pit of acid in the basement. A. Pit. Of. Acid.

What makes House on Haunted Hill special and worth viewing is the fact that the film leans into its shortcomings in a way that is clearly not replicated by many of its contemporaries. The actors, as far as their abilities allow them to any rate, chew on the scenery and attempt to build the tension in every scene. The ridiculous soundstage is utilized by some of the principle cast to as good affect as possible, and some creative sound effects attempt to hide the plywood walls from sounding like plywood walls (although they still sound like plywood). The cheese of this film is what lends it that special charm that makes it a good bad film.

House on Haunted Hill is like the cheese ball your weird Aunt Mindie brings over on Thanksgiving. At first you dislike it and criticize it in your head, but before you realize it you have eaten the entire thing and want more. Be sure to pair with a nice glass of rose wine and have some ambrosia salad for dessert (or a side).

My Thoughts:

House on Haunted Hill (side note: it’s not The House on Haunted Hill, minus the trailer using that title) may suffer from a lack of technological advances, but I tend to use the mindset of script strength when judging classic films. House on Haunted Hill suffers from a common theme of William Castle’s 1950s horror films, it was too ahead of it’s time.

The film focuses on Frederick Loren (Vincent Price), an eccentric millionaire, throwing a party for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) by inviting a group of strangers to an allegedly haunted house. With, at times, Scooby-Doo like shenanigans, certain characters die and (almost) all is revealed in a rather rushed ending centering upon a vat of acid.

Buono compares House on Haunted Hill to Hitchcock’s work, but I find this comparison a bit short sighted. Director William Castle was a kind of King of the B’s, not unlike Roger Corman. His movies were made with shoe-string budgets, and did well at the box office. He tended to utilize gimmicks in his films to give viewers an interactive experience within the theater, using a skeleton flying from a wire during the climactic ending of House on Haunted Hill. In fact, the success of House on Haunted Hill inspired Hitchcock to move forward with the filming of Psycho.

The acting can at times feel forced, but I wouldn’t say it detracts from the film. Price gives his usual theatrical delivery, but I believe the scrumptious Carol Ohmart turns in a believable performance as Annabelle. House on Haunted Hill must have been an eye-opener to Ohmart for how far her star had fallen in only two years, but she gives the performance the cool edge needed for a possibly murderous wife, a kind of B-film answer to the infamous Hitchcock blonde.

Overall, I would classify the film as a robust horror classic much deserving of its cult status. Castle paints a sometimes unbelievable world (and some may argue a social critique of what people will do for money) that is sure to produce a reaction 61 years after its release. The film’s appeal will assuredly hold up for those with an acquired taste in 50s horror films, and surpasses some of the other b-horror flicks from the decade, like Bride of the Gorilla. Seeing as how we’re both recommending food for watching, I’m choosing Vincent Price’s Oxtail Creole (trust me, it’s really great) and his Prune Honey Bread (although his cheesecake recipe is also worth the try!).

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