House on Haunted Hill (1959) “Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here”

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vintage house on haunted hill poster

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 1959

Disembodied screams, rattling chains and ghoulish groans amidst creaking doors- all a delicious mixture of frightful sounds that emanate from a jet black screen.

Suddenly Watson Pritchard’s floating head narrates the evenings spooky tale–

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“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people including my brother have been murdered in it, since then, I own the house. I’ve only spent one night there and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.” -Watson Pritchard

The marvelously dashing face of Vincent Price or for the film’s purposes, Frederick Loren’s head sporting a plucky mustache and highbrow tone introduces himself in front of the imposing Modern-Ancient structure–

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“I’m Frederick Loren and I’ve rented the house on haunted hill tonight so my wife can give a party. A haunted house party… She’s so amusing. There’ll be food and drink and ghosts and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I’ll give you each $10,000. Or your next of kin in case you don’t survive. Ah, but here come our other guests…”
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“It was my wife’s idea to have our guests come in funeral cars… She’s so amusing. Her sense of humor is shall we say, original. I dreamt up the hearse. It’s empty now but after a night in the house on haunted hill… who knows.”
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“Lance Schroeder a test pilot, no doubt a brave man but don’t you think you can be much braver if you’re paid for it?”
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“Ruth Bridges the newspaper columnist. She says the reason for her coming to the party is to write a feature article on ghosts. She’s also desperate for money. Gambling.”
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“Watson Pritchard a man living in mortal fear of a house and yet he’s risking his life to spend another night here… I wonder why? He says for money.”
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“Dr. David Trent a psychiatrist. He claims that my ghost will help his work on hysteria. But don’t you see a little touch of greed there around the mouth and eyes.”
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“This is Nora Manning- I picked her from the thousands of people who work for me because she needed the 10,000 more than most. Supports her whole family… Isn’t she pretty?”
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“The parties’ starting now and you have until midnight to find the house on haunted hill.”

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Von Dexter’s music, a mixture of solemn strings, a sustained and queasy Hammond organ & Theremin greet us with an eerie funeral dirge while the shiny black gimmicky funeral cars pull up in front the quite sinister post modern structure.

And this is just the opening fanfare of William Castle classic House on Haunted Hill!

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One of William Castle’s most beloved low budget, fun-house fright ride through classical B movie horror and exquisitely campy performances. Distributed by Allied Artists and written by Robb White who also did the screenplay for Castle’s Macabre 1958, The Tingler 1959 13 Ghosts 1960 & Homicidal 1961.

written by Robb White

White’s story is quirky and wonderfully macabre as it works at a jolting pace delivering some of the most memorable moments of offbeat suspense in this classic B&W B-Horror morsel from the 50s!

The success of the film inspired Alfred Hitchcock to go out and make his own low budget horror picture- Psycho 1960.

Much of the style and atmosphere can be attributed to the unorthodox detail by art director Dave Milton and set designer Morris Hoffman. The exterior of the house is actually The Ennis Brown House in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, built in 1924, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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the house

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There’s a pervasive sense of dread in House on Haunted Hill, that makes the house itself a ‘spook.’
Whether the house is haunted or not, it’s forbidding presence tells us that it just doesn’t matter. The history of the house itself, it’s violent past is enough to give one chills. While not in the classic sense like that of Robert Wise’s diseased and imposing Hill House, William Castle does a fabulous job of inventing a parameter to tell a very cheeky and pleasurable little scare story. As David J Skal puts it succinctly “The real, if unintentional spook in House on Haunted Hill is postwar affluence.”

The narrative is fueled by the creepy atmosphere of the house itself. Not using a claustrophobic Old Dark House trope but rather a modern Gothic construction that swallows you up with odd motifs and a sense of malignancy within the fortress walls. The starkness of the wine cellar and it’s empty miniscule dark grey rooms with sliding panels is almost more creepy than black shadowy corners with cob webs and clutter. Director of photography Carl E Guthrie  (Caged 1950) offers some stunning and odd perspective camera angles and low lighting which aide in the disjointed feeling of the sinister house’s magnetism.

interior house

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Nora explores the house

The constant explorations into the viscera of the house by the guests is almost as titillating as the criminal set-up and conspiracy that is afoot propelled by Von Dexter’s tantalizingly eerie musical score with deep piano notes and eerie wispy soprano glossolalia.

House on Haunted Hill works wonderfully, partly due to the presence of the urbane master of chills and thrills, the great Vincent Price who plays millionaire playboy Frederick Loren. Vincent Price was a versatile actor who should not be pigeon holed as merely a titan of terror, given his too numerous layered performances in great films like Otto Preminger’s Laura ’44, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck ’46 etc. Vincent Price did however make his mark on the horror genre with House on Haunted Hill. The New York Herald-Tribune praised Price’s performance as having “waggish style and bon-vivant skepticism.”

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As David J Skal puts it in his, The Monster Show {Vincent Price} “Could bring an arch elegance to the most insipid goings-on…

The omnipresent Elisha Cook Jr. is superb as Watson Pritchard, the neurotic sot who is riddled with fear, spouting anecdotes about the house’s grisly history.

I adore Elisha Cook, from his cameo in Rosemary’s Baby, his performance as George Peatty in Kubrick masterpiece The Killing ’56 to his very uniquely intense role as Cliff the sexually jazzed up drummer in Phantom Lady ’44.

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Elisha Cook Jr as the doomed George Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing ’56

The strikingly beautiful Carol Ohmart plays Loren’s treacherously seductive wife Annabelle who is sick of her husband’s irrational jealousy. Has she already tried to poison him once but failed? The story alludes to as much. Annabelle wouldn’t be happy with a million dollar divorce settlement, she wants ALL her husbands money! Annabelle is Loren’s fourth wife, the first wife simply disappeared.

The supporting cast is made up of Richard Long, Alan Marshal, Carolyn Craig, Julie Mitchum, Leona Anderson and Howard Hoffman as Mrs. & Mr. Jonas Slydes.

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And of course the skeleton who is billed as playing ‘himself!’

Continue reading “House on Haunted Hill (1959) “Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here””

William Castle’s: The Tingler (1959) “There’s not a worm in your backbone when you get scared!”

Or the miracle of PERCEPTO! “We must have buzzed 20 million behinds!”-William Castle

THE TINGLER 1959

Directed by William Castle, written by Robb White and starring Vincent Price, as Dr. Warren Chapin, Patricia Cutts as Isabel Stevens Chapin, Judith Evelyn as Martha Higgins, Philip Coolidge as Ollie Higgins, Darryl Hickman as David Morris, Chapin’s young assistant pathologist and Pamela Lincoln as Lucy Stevens. Von Dexter’s ominous score helps paint the creepy and menacing atmosphere.

Urbane master of horror Vincent Price stars in one of William Castles atmospheric carnival rides as Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who’s milieu is the autopsies of executed prisoners from the State prison.

Chapin is driven by a curiosity to find out the source of the mysteriously evil force that creates the SENSATION of fear, and so he sparks a theory that there is an organism called… The Tingler which manifests itself at the base of the spine when one is experiencing abject fear. The Tingler however is subdued by the act of screaming. This nightmare from the vertebral id looks like a giant centipede or a flat lobster with mandibles, lots of legs and armored scales.

Each of us are inhabited by one of these creepy crawling death grippers, which grow larger as our fear expands, but because of our ability to scream, it lays dormant, incognito and in repose at the base of our spines.

At first Chapin locks himself in his lab, experimenting by taking doses of LSD and trying to induce fear first in stray cats and then in himself.

So it goes until Chapin meets Ollie and Martha Higgins who own a revival silent movie theater, and oh yes, Martha happens to be a deaf mute, who also has an extreme phobia to the sight of blood.

As you know, I adore Judith Evelyn, and am not very happy when it’s suggested that Chapin injects her with some LSD instead of a sedative in order to induce some nightmarish experiences, in which Martha will not be able to ‘scream’ therefor unable to suppress the little monster waiting to grip her when the moment of fear takes hold…

Click on image, to see the ghostly chair at work…

In one of the most memorable classic horror movie sequences, Martha (Evelyn) during her presumed lysergic acid journey is stalked through her modest, bleak and sinister apartment by a ghoulish phantom, who hurls a hatchet at her and then maneuvers her into the bathroom, where blood runs from the sink taps and the white porcelain tub fills with actual red colored blood (the film is of course in B&W) An arm rises from the tub and clutches toward Martha, who is in the throws of primeval fear, made all the more brutal by the fact that she cannot utter a sound thus not… scream out!

Dying of fright on the bathroom floor, Ollie wraps her up in a sheet and brings her to Dr Chapin’s house. Sensible, skip the police and straight to the autopsy I say!

Chapin had figured that Martha’s extreme fear would enable the Tingler to grow to it’s veritable actual size, and thus give him the opportunity to catch a living specimen, by slicing open Martha’s back, and peeling the monster from her spinal column.

Having set out to try his experiment, he was unaware that husband Ollie equip with ghoul mask, axe, and tub filled with tomato red blood ( in a B & W film, using special focus lenses for the colored sequences) was plotting to scare his poor wife to death, and appropriate Chapin’s LSD inducing experiment to frighten Martha to death.

Once Chapin has the Tingler, Ollie takes his detinglered wife back home and Chapin’s wife Isabel (Price always seems to have a scheming hussy for a wife in these flicks) slips him a mickey and lets loose the Tingler on her unconscious husband, which proceeds to clutch at his throat like a tick on a sunny august hound dog. Luckily sister-in-law Lucy arrives just in time to… SCREAM!

“Don’t you hate it when your neighbor’s dog fluffy humps your leg when ever he’s out for a walk!”

The Tingler let’s go of it’s death grip, Chapin puts the thing in a pet carrier, and goes off to Ollie’s apartment to put the darn thing back onto Martha’s backbone. He soon realizes that Ollie murdered his wife, a fight ensues, and the Tingler gets loose, slipping through the floor boards and is now inside the movie house looking for someone to death grip!

From Guilty Pleasures of The Horror Film page 137- Article by Tom Weaver

William Castle had told Price that:

“Usually people who are frightened scream, and that keeps their Tingler from growing. Judith Evelyn will play a deaf mute who runs a silent movie theater. Experimenting you scare the hell out her, but because she can’t utter a sound-she’s unable to scream-her Tingler grows, crushing her to death, you operate, remove the Tingler from her spine, but it escapes and gets into the silent movie theater. Well then, make believe that the theater is actually where the picture is playing…all hell breaks loose!”

In Weaver’s article he discusses the waning horror movie genre after WWII and how Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique in 1955 was at the vanguard of cinema.

Vera Clouzot in her husband’s masterpiece Le Diaboliques 1955

Castle was so impressed with how much the younger audiences had a hunger to be scared pantless, that supposedly it was this French thriller, that inspired Castle to try scaring the pants off audiences as well.

Many a Film Noir was tinged with elements of the horrific, with dark undertones and psychological angles that became very influential in American and British cinema. Where else did darker cinema have to go in order to funnel it’s often transgressive, unorthodox, taboo energies but through the Psychotronic, Cult or B-Movie horror genres.

The very bizarre, disturbing and surreal Shanks directed by William Castle

Around the time of Clouzot’s macabre masterpiece, there were also some very unsettling thematic offerings such as Autumn Leaves 1956, The Night Holds Terror 1955, The Three Faces of Eve 1957, A Cry in The Night 1956, Cast A Dark Shadow 1955, The Killer is Loose 1956, The Snorkel 1958, Edge of Fury 1958, Screaming Mimi 1958 and Tennessee William’s emotionally violent  Suddenly, Last Summer 1959 which suggested cannibalism, devouring motherhood and Oedipal rage.

Just a little later in the early 60s I think of The Strangler with Victor Buono in 1964 or Grant Williams in The Couch in 1962, The Nanny 1965, or The Naked Kiss 1964 which filtrated pretty grotesque narratives of, Pedophilia, deranged psychosis, incest and again, the Oedipus complex.

Aldrich had ushered in a whole new persona for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with his Grand Dame Guignol tour de force,  What Ever Happened To Baby Jane 1962

The trumpets were hailing for Castle to step up and create his own uniquely tacky ballyhoo! While not Freud in the inkwell, certainly at least some kitschy Schadenfreude.

Castle could see that young American’s were starving for an entertainment that was part horrific and a little exhibitionist. He purchased a copy on the cheap of a horror/mystery novel called The Marble Forest and got television writer Robb White to put a screenplay together, and hey while they were at it, why not give it a french sounding title as a tout to Diabolique!

That’s when they released Macabre 1958 which actually didn’t come until 3 years after the release of Diabolique. Weaver doubts Castle’s accuracy about certain details in his relatings about the series of events but then again William Castle was admittedly a showman, a huckster, the PT Barnum of Horror films and didn’t deny that he could tell big whoppers at times. It was all in fun…!

William Castle and Mia Farrow on the set of Rosemary’s Baby!

There’s even conflicting stories as to how the project for The Tingler came about. White who also wrote the script for House on Haunted Hill claims that it was make up man Jack Dusick who showed White a foot long rubber worm that he had created. “This worm it haunted you… it scared you!!!”

White thought about the idea and went to Castle and told him that they should find out “where fear comes from” and they’ll use the WORM!

Actually the concept of FEAR itself becomes a vital character to the narrative of The Tingler, although I’m sure Castle couldn’t give a hoot about the real ‘why’ more likely it was the ‘how’ to go about doing the ‘how’! He was more of the discount provocateur than auteur. He had vision, it was just in 3D.

According to Castle he asked an artist at Columbia’s art department what a Tingler should look like, ” Sort of like a lobster but flat, and instead of claws, it has long slimy feelers!”

Of course the cast thought the script preposterous, but Price always approached anything he did with style, and an urbane dignity.

For the promotion of The Tingler,some theaters even had boxes in the lobby, where a live Tingler was being held. You were warned not to panic, but to SCREAM if it breaks loose!

White had written that they couldn’t find anything to make the Tingler look more frightening, until Castle (Bill) came in one morning with a small vibrator which eventually saved the picture.

It was his idea to take out all the motors from thousands of vibrators and screw them under the theater seats, then rig everything up at crucial moments so that the audience would suddenly begin vibrating in waves, six rows at a time!

Again, whether this is true or not, Castle claims he got the idea one night after he got a violent electrical shock from changing a light bulb in his bed side table. William Castle wrote in his Step Right Up! “I’m going to buzz the asses of everyone in America!” 

By installing little motors under the seats of every theater in the country, the projectionist would get the special cues on the film itself , then press a button once the Tingler appears on screen to ‘jolt’ the audience, leading them to believe that the Tingler was loose in the actual theater!

Dona Holloway the Associate to the Producer dubbed the process PERCEPTO

Now that I’m back in the NYC area, I have to see if the Film Forum on Houston Street still runs their horror/sci-fi/fantasy Festivals. Years ago, I happened to catch a showing of The Maze 1953 where they passed out 3D glasses to the audience. At one time the Film Forum ran The Tingler complete with Percepto! I would love to have had my ass in one of those seats…

As far as Robb White, he considered these films dumb, “I hated ’em” “And for years didn’t see some of the films I made with Bill Castle. I mean they’re so dumb God!- there’s not a worm in your back bone when you get scared.”

“You’ll Scream If You Value Your Life!”

It’s been a SCREAM!-MonsterGirl… !