IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

House on Haunted Hill - posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Vincent Price flick HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), up now in the June 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.
And just a friendly reminder: if you enjoy this column, my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT book, a collection of 115 In The Spooklight columns, is available as an EBook at http://www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.
—Michael

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
BY
MICHAEL ARRUDA

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) may have been the first Vincent Price film I ever saw.

I’m not exactly sure because as a kid, I was already a fan of Hammer Films and of the Universal monster movies, and so Vincent Price was always taking a back seat to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr.

It took a while for Price to grow on me, but that being said, today I’m a big Vincent Price fan.

The first time I saw HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL on television I was pretty young— I don’t think I was even ten yet— and it scared the crap out of me. There’s one scene in particular, where a creepy old lady suddenly appears out of nowhere and frightens the young heroine that nearly made me scream.

Nearly.

I was barely ten, remember.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL has always been one of my favorite Vincent Price films, mostly because Price’s performance as the enigmatic millionaire Frederick Loren is the way I most remember him in the movies: somewhat sinister with a sly sense of humor, with a deadpan delivery and an air of mystery about him which makes him difficult to read. He may be a murderer, perhaps even insane, or he may simply be a man with a colorful sense of the macabre. It’s a great performance by Price.

In HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Vincent Price plays the eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren who throws a party for his equally eccentric wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) in which he invites five guests to a supposedly haunted house. These guests must promise to stay the night in the haunted house with Frederick and Annabelle, and if they do, Frederick promises to pay them each ten thousand dollars, a hefty sum back in 1959.

It only takes one scene for us to realize that Frederick and Annabelle are not in love. In fact, they can’t stand each other. Annabelle even confides in some of the guests that she fears Frederick is trying to kill her, having thrown this party as a cover. This way, he can kill her and make it look like she was murdered by one of the ghosts that haunts the house, and with five witnesses to attest to the supernatural’s involvement, he’d be home free.

Plenty of strange things do indeed happen in the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, including murder, but just who killed whom and for what reason isn’t revealed until the final frame.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was directed by William Castle, the king of the “gimmick” horror movies from the 1950s and 60s. After the success of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle would go on to direct THE TINGLER (1959), also starring Price, 13 GHOSTS (1960), MR. SARDONICUS (1961) STRAIT-JACKET (1964) and I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965).

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL has a fun screenplay by Robb White who also wrote Castle’s THE TINGLER and 13 GHOSTS. It provides Vincent Price with some memorable lines of dialogue, and its plot about a group of people trying to spend the night in a haunted house while a murder plot is being hatched is ripe for suspense and mystery. It plays like one of those murder mystery party games. It’s a hoot, and it’s scary.

However, the story doesn’t hold up all that well today. Its tale of husband vs. wife comes off as forced and contrived. There are easier ways to get rid of a spouse than by an elaborate plot involving spooks, paid guests, and haunted houses. Ever hear of a good divorce lawyer?

But when I was a kid I didn’t care, and to be honest, as an adult, I still don’t mind all that much as the film possesses an energy and a creepiness that make it highly enjoyable.

The best part of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL however is Vincent Price. It’s really the first time in a horror movie that Price displayed his sinister side, something he would do with more frequency in his later films. Sure, before HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL he played the villain in the horror films HOUSE OF WAX (1953) and THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954), but in these roles he was more of a straightforward madman. In HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, we see Price begin to hone and sharpen that devilish personality with which we’d become familiar in his roles in the 1960s and 70s.

Also in the cast of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is Richard Long, who most people know from the TV western THE BIG VALLEY which also starred Barbara Stanwyck and the future SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN Lee Majors, but when I first saw HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in the early 1970s, I was familiar with Long from the popular show NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, which when I was a kid was one of my favorites. Long died young, at age 47 in 1974.

Elisha Cook Jr. is also in the cast as Watson Pritchard, the man who knows all about the house and its murderous past. Pritchard is full of ominous anecdotes, and he’s responsible for generating much of the feelings of unease in the early parts of this movie. Just the guy you want to have around at a haunted house party.

Cook appeared in a gazillion movies, but I always remember him from his bit part in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), the film that introduced Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak. And of course, who can forget Cook as the shady gunman in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), who gets his comeuppance several times over at the hands of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade.

But HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL belongs to Vincent Price. He’s quick with the one-liner, gracious, and proper, but always with an undercurrent of deadliness about him, so you never know what to expect.

Price would go on to become famous for his appearances in the colorful Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films from the 1960s, and he is excellent in these movies. But I actually prefer Price in this movie. His performance here is less hammy, less over the top, and more biting, more frightening. It’s Price at his best.

Looking for an all-night party this summer? Look no further than HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Stay the night. Really.

It’s a scream.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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