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!’

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