House on Haunted Hill
directed by William Castle
(Warner, 1958)

Just imagine, a haunted house movie that is actually scary. As a jaded modern horror fan watching the video at home, I can't say it really scared me, but I daresay that if you put a couple of hundred people inside a modern movie theatre and showed this film to them, you would get some delightful screams and jumps out of your audience.

A movie such as this belongs in black and white, and the whole mood is appropriately creepy. The director left almost nothing out: creaking doors, apparitions, secret rooms, screams (almost so many they become annoying), skeletons, thunder and lightning, organ music, moments of total darkness, a pit of acid and, last but not least, the inimitable Vincent Price in a role he was born to play. The movie opens with a black screen and the sounds of screaming and moaning, then the disembodied heads of the home's owner and then Mr. Loren (Price) float up and introduce the tale to the audience. The credits appear sort of Scooby Doo-ish, but that's not a problem.

As for the plot, Loren is an eccentric man of wealth throwing a haunted house party for wife No. 4, and she is as anxious to kill him as he is to kill her. Five strangers make up the party guests -- a former test pilot, a society newspaper columnist, a psychiatrist, an unassuming, vulnerable young lady, and the house's owner, Pritchard, who incessantly tells the story of the murders having taken place in the house and continually warns everyone (in between drinks) that the ghosts will never let them survive the night.

Each guest has been promised the incredible sum of $10,000 if he or she can survive the night inside the house. Naturally, weird things start to happen, and then all of the partygoers find themselves locked in the house prematurely with no hope of escape until morning. Loren distributes the party favors -- handguns housed in little miniature coffins. Naturally, rather than stay together, the houseguests end up wandering around on their own, and Norah is especially traumatized throughout the evening by what she sees and experiences. Mrs. Loren is soon found hanging above the stairwell, and the night really starts going downhill after that for everyone else. There are games afoot, the full extent of which are not revealed until the ending of the film. In its original theatrical release, the ever so fiendish director William Castle had a skeleton rigged inside each theater that would appear above the audience's heads at the appropriate time....

This is definitely one of the finer horror movies ever made. The effects may seem somewhat silly to modern audiences, but the simplest frights are often the most effective. The ending is not altogether disappointing, which is another plus. The plot itself is gratifyingly complex and twisted. Anyone with an interest in the horror genre should find this Vincent Price gem to be quite a hoot.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 4 June 2005

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