HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL - DVD review

...a minor cult classic in the haunted-house genre, and while it may not be very scary, it sure is entertaining.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"The ghosts are moving tonight, restless...hungry.

May I introduce myself? I'm Watson Pritchard. In just a minute I'll show you the only real 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've owned the house. I've only spent one night there, and when they found me in the morning, I was almost dead." --Elisha Cook, "House on Haunted Hill"

Was there ever a cornier, campier, sillier, and more totally lovable horror movie than William Castle's 1958 "House on Haunted Hill"?

This older film is not to be confused with the 1999 remake, which was quite inferior in every way. Maybe that sounds contradictory, given that the older movie is itself so preposterous; but its director, William Castle, was a preposterous showman with absolutely no shame, who left us a whole string of wonderfully goofy horror flicks that he knew that we knew were meant in fun. To add to the merriment, Castle even went out of his way to include gimmicks in their promotion. For "House on Haunted Hill" he equipped select theaters with skeletons that flew down over the audience. For "Macabre" he offered life insurance policies for people who might die of fright while watching the film. For "13 Ghosts" he gave out 3-D glasses to view the spirits. And for "The Tingler" he rigged certain theater seats to vibrate during key scenes. He was the P.T. Barnum of low-budget horror. (To his credit, one of Castle's later films was the excellent "Rosemary's Baby," which he produced but hired Roman Polanski to direct.)

"House on Haunted Hill" stars Vincent Price, whose career was just turning toward full-fledged horror at the time, the actor having gotten his feet wet several years earlier in "House of Wax" and the previous year in "The Fly." After "House on Haunted Hill" there was practically no looking back as Price found a whole new world had opened up for him in horror, a genre we usually associate him with today even though he was a straight dramatic actor for several decades before he got into the horror business.

Price plays an eccentric millionaire in "House on Haunted Hill," a fellow named Frederick Loren, who invites five guests to a party in a haunted house he's rented. If they can spend just the one night there, he will give them each $10,000.

Why would even an eccentric millionaire be willing to lay out $50,000 for a single night's party? Ostensibly, it's to please his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), who suggested it in the first place. But she's a cold, calculating, unfaithful woman that we learn early on once tried to poison her husband. Not that the husband is any saint. Annabelle is his fourth wife, the first three having died mysteriously.

The guests at the party all have one thing in common: They need money. There's a handsome test pilot, Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), short on cash; a typist, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), who works for Loren; a psychiatrist, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), who is researching the subject of hysteria; a gossip columnist, Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), with gambling debts; and the alcoholic owner of the house, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), who can't help babbling on about the ghosts in the place.

Once the doors are closed, everybody's locked in. The windows are barred, the telephones are disconnected, and the electricity is shut off. Pritchard claims that there are already seven ghosts in the house, seven that he knows about, "maybe more before morning," then goes on to explain that two of them were butchered, pieces of their bodies discovered in various rooms; all except the heads, which were never found. "There's been a murder almost every place in this house," he says.

When I first saw the film, I was in maybe the eighth grade and thought it was very scary. Goes to show how time and age affect one's perceptions of things. I didn't mind (or even notice) Price's hammy theatrics, the phony effects, or the production costs that wouldn't have bought Cecil B. DeMille a decent lunch. Then, when I saw the movie again on TV some years later, I remember being very disappointed, thinking how frivolous it all seemed. It wasn't until probably my third or fourth viewing that I came to enjoy it for what it is, a purposely hokey, deliberately cheesy horror flick meant to make you smile more than scream. I've loved it ever since.

I love all the old clichés: the ceiling that drips blood; the vat of acid in the cellar; the severed heads that show up in suitcases; the organ that plays by itself in the dead of night; and the spooky, if over-the-top, musical score by Richard Loring and Von Dexter. I love the squeaky doors, the unhinged characters, and the creaky plot that grows increasingly more like Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" as the story wears on. And I wouldn't trade Vincent Price's ham for the finest filet mignon.

Two final points of interest: (1) The exterior shots of the mansion may seem familiar; they're of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis-Brown House in Los Angeles, a location for any number of famous films, including "The Rocketeer," "Predator 2," "Black Rain," and "Blade Runner." (2) William Castle always claimed to have been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock and tried to emulate his style wherever possible. When Hitchcock saw "House on Haunted Hill," it inspired him to do his own low-budget horror film the next year, "Psycho." Life goes around in circles, I guess.

Video:
The movie is presented in two versions: the original black-and-white and a new colorized edition. Both versions are presented in what a keep-case blurb claims is the original aspect ratio, 1.33:1. From this, I infer that Legend Films and Fox Home Entertainment have gone back to the original camera negative (before the image was matted for widescreen) and transferred the fullscreen picture to disc. However, I do not recall the film being in fullscreen the first time I saw it in a theater in 1959. By the late fifties almost every movie was being shown theatrically in some sort of widescreen, and in this case I seem to remember its being something like 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. In any case, from everything I can gather we appear to be seeing more of the total image, top and bottom, than ever before, so I'm not complaining.

I do have a small complaint about the colorized version, though. The folks at Legend make a big deal about how their new process is so much better than what most of us remember from the Ted Turner days of colorization; but from what I see on this disc and from I see in their promo for colorization in the bonus features, the picture still looks washed out and lightly tinted, never bright or natural. I wonder if it occurs to these colorization specialists that B&W films were designed to look good in black-and-white, and that B&W photography conveys degrees of intensity and tone and atmosphere that color cannot match. In a haunted-house film, the black-and-white works to the story's advantage. Nevertheless, William Castle loved attention-getting contrivances, they were his stock-in-trade, so I'm sure if he were still alive he wouldn't mind the Legend people luring in a few more viewers with the promise of color.

Anyway, I was quite content after a few minutes of watching the colorized version to switch to the black-and-white, the way the movie was intended. The restored B&W shows up quite well in its light-to-dark contrasts, but a small degree of grain tends to make the picture look a little rough, especially in the outdoor shots. Moreover, while object delineation is certainly more than adequate, there are instances of wavy or shimmering lines that occasionally distract the eye My rating below is for the B&W version of the movie only.

Audio:
The sound is nothing to write home about. It's a very ordinary 2.0 monaural, cleaned up via Dolby Digital processing. As we might expect, there is little in the way of frequency range, dynamic impact, or deep bass involved. Yet it conveys fairly good clarity in the midrange and gets the job done, the better to hear the screams, my dears.

Extras:
I've already mentioned that the disc comes with a restored black-and-white version and an all-new colorized version, both located on the same side of a dual-layered disc. Since the movie is only seventy-five minutes long and there's nothing anamorphic needing added information, it's easy to see how the studio could fit two versions on one side. The most compelling extra, though, is an audio commentary by Mike Nelson, the former host of TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000." He's a very funny fellow, and you may remember his commentary for another of Legend Films' restorations, "Reefer Madness." Here, Nelson has less to poke fun at because most of "House on Haunted Hill" is intentionally harebrained to begin with; and for some viewers a little of his whimsical wisecracks may go a long way. He's kind of like the teenager sitting behind you at a movie theater that you have to keep turning around and asking to keep quiet about a dozen times. Still, Nelson approaches the film with high good humor and manages to rib it while not wholly deriding it.

In addition, there are twelve scene selections; a two-minute montage of press material for the film; an original theatrical trailer; and theatrical trailers for several other Legend horror films. English is the only spoken language available, and there are no subtitle options. It's English or bust.

Parting Thoughts:
I still get a kick out of this film, all these decades later. Everything about it is so remarkably comfortable, from its exaggerated histrionics to its schlocky special effects. Yes, "House on Haunted Hill" remains a minor cult classic in the haunted-house genre, and while it may not be very scary, it sure is entertaining.

And if you're wondering about number of dead in the house, well, as Elisha Cook says at the end of the movie: "Now there are nine. There'll be more; many more. They're coming for me now. And then they'll come for you."

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
5
Film Value
7