The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
first time I watched The House on Haunted Hill I was impressed. It was
creepy and captivating, Vincent Price was brilliant and the
atmosphere and story-line were completely immersive. I was in
love. However, when I re-watched the film for this review, I made a
startling discovery: my memory is a dirty, filthy liar. On second
pass, Haunted Hill was far less opulent, the casting less
appropriate, and the overall experience somewhat dull and stunted.
While it's certainly not a bad film, this review, sadly, is tinged
with bitter disappointment.
Frederick Loren, an eccentric millionaire, is throwing a party for his estranged wife, Annabelle. It is not, however, your normal social gala. Each guest, total strangers to one another, has been invited by Mr. Loren with the promise of 10,000 dollars if they can stay, and survive, the night in a haunted mansion. As expected, when the doors lock for the night, the natural and supernatural hijinks begin.
its surface, The House on Haunted Hill doesn't disappoint, provided
you know what to expect. This movie is fun.
It's not a benchmark of cinematic acheivement, or even something to
tell your friends about next week. But, when you've nothing better to
do and a bowl of popcorn that needs eating, its a fantastic way to
pass the time. The effects are gimmicky. The severed heads look
suspiciously like rubber and the rope that moves of its own accord is
obviously on wires. And the vat of acid? That's there just because
it would be an awesome way to off somebody. And the screams are
downright ear-piercing. There is something to look forward to around
every corner, even if it just a skeleton suspended from the ceiling.
The wackiness of House on Haunted Hill is just downright
The gimmicky effects and classic horror tropes are tempered by a rather well-done set. It's your typical haunted mansion, with extravagant and exotic décor, lush furniture and dangerous chandeliers. It gives these cheap special effects a home, somewhere they belong and don't seem out of place. It seems natural that, when Nora is locked in a Victorian basement, she would encounter a ghastly ghoul, since these are the kinds of houses that ghastly ghouls like to call home. The set adds to the overall atmosphere of the film, making it seem somehow more plausible, or at least acceptable. (Of course, none of this explains the Frank Lloyd Wright building shown in the exterior shots. But I'm choosing to ignore that; I really don't know how to comment on it.)
All of this is complemented by some beautiful lighting. With few exceptions, the rooms and hallways are always shadowed, such that the viewer can't actually see who or what is moving around. And, of course, when you can't see what's coming, it's always more terrifying. Ensconced in shadows, its impossible to tell if that movement really was just the wind, or if that shadow coming down the stairs is really human. The film is full of indistinct shapes and obscured movement, giving it a somewhat creepy feeling despite the general hokeyness of the surrounding décor. Overall, it lends just enough credence to the spooky happenings, tempering the ridiculousness and making the whole film easier to swallow.
However, despite the overall appearance and fun flow of the film, the very heart of House on Haunted Hill is its character. People, more than anything else, are the lifeblood of House on Haunted Hill, so much that beyond the interpersonal intricacies, there's not much else to say. Most of the ghostly activity can be explained by backstabbing and double-crossing, and most of the suspense is driven by human suspicion and fear rather than spooks and gore. And for that reason, the most important part of this film is casting. It is with a heavy heart that I have to say they screwed up.
Price is, as ever, cordial and creepy. His dulcet soothing voice
contains undertones of malice that just set your teeth on edge. His
languid, inviting posture are not friendly in the slightest,
reminding the viewer of a hungry cat that isn't to be trusted. And
the smile is chilling, never once reaching his eyes. Price, in
Haunted Hill, is everything we have come to expect of the man's
horror performance: expressive, captivating and terrifying.
Unfortunately, and it pains me to say it, it is exactly what this
film does not need.
Price's performance doesn't leave any question as to Loren's demeanor or intentions. It's clear from the beginning that he has called this party together as a means of getting rid of his wife, that he is a conniving untrustworthy bastard, and that everyone else in that house is just his pawn to be played. Which is unfortunate, since the surprise twist in the film is that Loren, while kind of a jerk, was the very clever victim of his wife's charade who got the upperhand and gave them what they deserved. Price's performance is heavy-handed, leaving no room for doubt or second-guessing - which is exactly what Loren's character requires. This might have been an attempt to distract the viewer from the twist ending, but it somehow makes the twist less surprising. While Price may not have been the central culprit, his performance makes him seem the mastermind. The real villains, who eventually get their comeuppance, almost seem like victims in light of Price's overt sinister-ness, muting the surprise twist and making the climax a bit disappointing.
my disappointment with major casting decisions, I feel like credit
should be given where credit is due. In particular, Carolyn Craig,
who plays the easily-upset Nora, and Elisha Cook Jr., the drunken,
half-mad owner of the house, both have "crazy person" down to a
science. Cook is a raving lunatic from the beginning, and never once
wavers. Simpering his dire warnings, which become slightly more
slurred with drink as the film continues, he never lets us forget
that the house is haunted. Cooks eyes almost bug from his head,
particularly when he senses that the ghosts are near, and, as a
result of this performance, the audience is forced to wonder if all
of the phenomenon can be explained by the human intrigues going on
all around us.
Craig's performance is more subtle, though equally good. She starts off the film all wide-eyed innocence, with a clinginess to Lance that is almost irritating. However, she's poised and self-controlled: Nora is a lady. Then she sees a "ghost" and the breakdown begins. Aside from the scream-queen interludes when she's faced with something particularly horrifying, Craig portrays Nora's descent into hysteria with nuanced skill. After each shock, Nora's character becomes more brittle, her movements jerkier, her eyes a little shiftier and her voice a little shriller. When she finally cracks, into full on hysteria, Craig's eyes are wide and wild, her movements uncoordinated, as she runs blindly down the hall. We not only believe that this is a woman who has been pushed to madness, but thanks to Craig's careful build-up, we saw how she got there.
I find it very hard to recommend this film, despite there being a lot of positive things to say about it. The acting is about 50/50, and the overall feel of the film is fun. And, at just over 80 minutes, House on Haunted Hill is reasonably entertaining. Unfortunately, Price's performance leaves me with a twinge of sadness, since he is so brilliant and yet so completely misplaced. However, my disappointment may not be yours, and at the very least, House on Haunted Hill is something everyone should watch at least once, preferable with good friends, good wine, and plenty of popcorn.