Collins’ Crypt: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is William Castle’s Masterpiece

Brian goes to bat for a classic.

Thanks to the reveal at the end of House on Haunted Hill, the film contains more plot holes than just about any other in history. And yet, it doesn't matter. The movie earns so much goodwill and continues to be so fun even as you're thinking "But wait a minute..." that most fans, including myself, shrug off all the inconsistencies and impossibilities (that rope!) that result from the revelation that -

Wait, no. I won't spoil it here. If just one person reading this piece hasn't seen it yet, I wouldn't dare ruin the fun. I assure you, the twist isn't exactly Sixth Sense-ian, and again, it presents so many plot holes that a 2nd viewing might actually be a DISSERVICE to the more uptight folks in the crowd, but there's still great joy to be had from seeing it all play out as director William Castle and screenwriter Robb White envisioned (however haphazardly). A loving throwback to the "Old Dark House" programmers of the 30s and 40s, the film is by far the best of Castle's directorial efforts, as it works just as well at home as it would in a theater with Castle's legendary gimmicks in place. 13 Ghosts is only fun with the red/blue "Ghost viewers", and The Tingler barely even works WITH its own gimmick, since it takes so long for it to show up (his other films, while fun in their own way, aren't even contenders for "best").

The plot is endearingly simple - a millionaire named Frederick Loren offers 10,000 dollars to anyone that can survive being locked in a supposedly haunted house for the night. But that millionaire is played by Vincent Price, so you can guarantee there's something more playful and yet sinister going on behind the scenes. As we eventually learn, the party was actually his wife Annabelle's idea, but he's the one who made up the guest list (of all strangers), and to make matters worse, the two of them really hate each other. Annabelle, you see, is Frederick's 4th wife, and the other three died under mysterious circumstances, so she's convinced he murdered them all and that she is next. But she's no saint either, she has tried to kill HIM ("Remember when you poisoned me?", Price asks, as fondly as one might recall a first date) and makes no effort to argue his accusations of her infidelity. Their back and forths are filled with an endearing hatred for one another, reminding me of War of the Roses and things like that - making me wish there were more of them. I can forgive the plot holes, but not the fact that White's script only offers a few such dialogue exchanges.

But he has a good excuse - Annabelle is killed early on*, throwing suspicion at Frederick and giving the characters an excuse to do horror movie things like split up and look around for ghosts or whatever. The movie's brief running time (75 minutes, which includes something akin to a teaser trailer at the top and an overlong narration explaining who everyone is) doesn't leave much time for dilly dally, and unlike a lot of those older films, the characters are all interesting. More importantly, they're all on equal ground save Price; many of the old ones would throw in a butler and/or an inspector to provide more suspects, inadvertently weakening the central mystery. But here, it's like Clue - you can make a case for any of them being the villain, and I can't really say any of them turning out to be the big bad would be a disappointment.

Keeping the cast compact also means not lessening the screentime for Price, who really cemented his place as the premiere horror actor of his day (and one of the greats of all time) with his role here. Before this, his horror work had been pretty limited - only a handful of films, some of which didn't even put him in the center role (such as The Fly, where he was the main guy's brother), and he was continuing to work heavily as a character actor in all types of films. But after this film became such a huge success (it was part of what inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho), his career became primarily genre-oriented, and would go on to make all those great Corman/Poe films, Last Man on Earth, and of course his masterpiece - Dr Phibes. Nowadays we think of this as one of the essential "Vincent Price horror movies", so it's hard to really even conceive of the fact that at the time of its release, it'd be no different than someone like Stanley Tucci or Jason Isaacs toplining one today.

Or Geoffrey Rush, who played Price's role in the remake and was pretty much the only good thing about it. Adapting a persona that seemed to be a mix of Price and James Woods, Rush was a total delight in the otherwise CGI-heavy and occasionally incomprehensible 1999 update, which nonetheless made a lot of money, resulting in a remake of Castle's 13 Ghosts two years later (they also released a House of Wax remake, but it had almost no relation to Price's film). The CGI in particular really bothered me - the original was a film that reveled in cheap tricks and simple gags - ones that are still pretty effective 50+ years later - and somehow the new team wanted to honor it with pricy, complicated FX that wouldn't scare a child? I didn't get it. The sequel, 2007's Return to House on Haunted Hill, actually tried harder to live up to the Castle spirit, as the Blu-ray/HD-DVD offered a "Choose Your Own Adventure" type approach to watching the film, something Castle would have approved of and probably tried himself** had the technology been around before he passed away in the 70s. It wasn't very good either, for the record.

Speaking of gimmicks, the one Castle devised for this film was called "Emergo", which would send a plastic skeleton (later an inflated one, after the heavier plastic version fell on someone) flying over the crowd when something similar happened in the film. It's not as elaborate as The Tingler's, or as participatory as most of his others (I still like the one where he made frightened audience members sit in a "Coward's Corner"), but it fits in nicely with the movie's emphasis on simple haunted house gags, and I hope like hell I can see it like that someday. Or even in the theater at all; I've seen a few other of Castle's films theatrically, but not House on Haunted Hill. I COULD remedy that if there was a Drafthouse in Los Angeles, however, as all of them are showing the film this week in a joint presentation with the Chiller Network. As far as I know, none of them will have the Emergo gimmick, but the Drafthouse, Mondo, and Chiller will make it up to you with special surprises. To find out what those are, secure your tickets HERE and let us know after! I'll be there in spirit. You can make the appropriate ghost pun.

*Ironically, the actress playing Annabelle, Carol Ohmart, is the only one of the cast that is still alive. Many of them died rather young, as did director Castle, making this movie a much better candidate for a "curse" than Poltergeist. Castle would probably love the publicity!

**Indeed, his film Mr. Sardonicus had a gimmick where audiences would "choose" whether the title character lived or died by voting near the end, with Castle handing out glow in the dark thumbs up/down cards to let the audience vote. However, only one ending actually exists, since Castle knew almost no one would vote to keep the horrible villain alive.

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