Film Reviews:

House on Haunted Hill

(William Castle, USA, 1959)

[House on Haunted Hill]Vincent Price stars in William (what's the promotional gimmick this time?) Castle's cult movie. Floating dismembered heads over the opening credits promise fun. It's a good, if familiar, premise. In the words of Price's millionaire host Frederick Loren: "A cross section from psychiatrist to typist, and from drunk to test pilot, they share one thing: they all need money. Now, let's see if they're brave enough to earn it." For $10,000 goes to whoever survives a night in the titular house.

In a thoroughly irresponsible attitude to firearms, the guests gladly take loaded guns from their host without question. Not surprising then that these later figure in the body count. This plays out like a combination of classic creepy old house thriller meets Agatha Christie. Only here the array of characters is more socially diverse than Christie was interested in. These are a lower class of suspects. The plot moves along in pretty standard fashion but Castle's sense of fun is evident throughout; and there's witty dialogue aplenty too. Ol' worry face himself Elisa Cook Jr. plays the owner of Hill House who, for some reason known only to himself, has failed to empty the huge acid vat in the cellar. Like the loaded firearms, you'll not be surprised to learn that this also features in the plot.

Although there are six guests, its the young secretary who gets most of the attention, usually on the receiving end of a barrage of scares that eventually send her hysterical and screaming (very piercingly) an awful lot. There remains at least one terrific scare that will have even the most experienced horror fans jumping. Carol Ohmart (a former Miss Utah and an actress previously unknown to me) as Loren's wife not only turns in a hugely entertaining performance, but is gorgeous, scantily-clad and gets some of the best lines too: "This is your room..." she says to a guest, "...Depressing isn't it?"! A nice streak of sadism is evident throughout, and the script incorporates a clever plot twist that helpfully explains a few things to those troubled by such details.

Interestingly, the house in question isn't some gothic mansion a la Psycho, but is actually a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house that was also used by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. However, despite the exterior appearance, the interior is the usual creepy old house style. Oh, and the gimmick used by cinemas when the film originally opened in 1959 was "Emergo" - a plastic skeleton floating above the audience on a wire - scary. 6/10

Rob Dyer (August 2006)

See also: some other old and new creepy house movies like...

Dark Old House, The
Haunting, The
My Little Eye

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