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Monday, October 13, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 8: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Written by Robb White
Directed by William Castle

The hosts:
Vincent Price:  Frederick Loren
Carol Ohmart:  Annabelle Loren

The guests:
Richard Long:  Lance Schroeder
Alan Marshal:  Dr. David Trent
Carolyn Craig:  Nora Manning
Elisha Cook Jr.:  Watson Pritchard
Julie Mitchum:  Ruth Bridgers

Well, this one starts with a bang. There' a pitch black screen and 30 seconds or so of screaming, then the floating head of Elisha Cook Jr. zooms at us to tell us the back story of a house that is on a hill. And haunted. Okay, setting established. Let's go.

Vincent Price plays Frederick Loren, the swankest imaginable multimillionaire industrialist playboy (think of him as a bitchier Tony Stark living in the pre-Beatles era); he's rented out this haunted house for a single night so that his wife Annabelle can hold a party. Five carefully selected guests have been driven to the old Pritchard mansion in a funeral procession; they arrive under the credits. William Castle, ever the showman, has his director credit played over the shot of a creaking door that the camera tracks through.

Frederick tells the guests that they'll receive $10,000 for surviving the night in the big blocky modernist house that has seen multiple murders in the past. Watson Pritchard, the owner of the house, says that only the ghosts are glad the guests are there. And when the front door closes, the huge chandelier in the foyer crashes to the ground, though luckily nobody's hurt. Upstairs, while talking to his wife, Frederick says he's invited everyone there for a reason--they all desperately need money and he apparently wants to see if they're willing to risk supernatural terrors from beyond the grave to get it (speaking as someone who lost his job late last year and spent eight months without a paycheck:  Yeah, I'd probably stay in a murder house overnight for $81,300--which is what ten grand in 1959 would be worth now).

Upstairs, Frederick and Annabelle cordially snipe at each other and there's some banter about whether or not she served him poisoned champagne in the past. She wants his money but not a divorce. Pritchard interjects into the downstairs conversation to say that two people were murdered in the house in the past, but neither of their heads were ever found. That's when Frederick shows up and lays down the ground rules for the party:  Everyone who survives overnight gets $10,000 (or an equal share of the $50,000 pot if anyone dies before dawn). Anyone who decides not to risk death can leave before midnight, but at the stroke of twelve the doors will be locked from the outside and everyone's stuck inside until morning.

It turns out that Fredrick is incredibly curious about what people would do when they saw a genuine ghost, so he set up this party as a way to try and find out. There were seven murder victims in the past at Pritchard House; four men and three women. And hey! That's the gender makeup of the party group! What a crazy random happenstance. Pritchard gives the Tragical History Tour of the house, pointing out where various people were killed. During this sequence, blood drips from the ceiling onto Ruth Bridges' hand. She's a gossip columnist who probably couldn't reject the invitation out of a sense of professional obligation. The tour continues downstairs where Pritchard points out the wine cellar, with gigantic bubbling acid tank in the floor. Of course one of the murders in the house's past was via acid bath, but why keep it restocked and full now?

Some of the guests start talking things over amongst themselves; they're all for making ten large but not too keen on getting killed by a ghost (or just by falling accidentally into an acid bath, if it comes to that). Nora Manning, a typist at one of Loren's companies, starts to talk to jet pilot Lance Schroeder. They start checking on doors and seeing what their options are for fleeing or hiding if they have to. Lance is poking around a room when the door slams on its own (which could possibly happen under normal circumstances) and locks itself (which couldn't). A ghostly figure shows up and recedes from view (with the actress pretty obviously standing still on a dolly or something). When everyone shows up to see what's the matter Lance is out cold on the floor.

Ruth Bridges says she needs the money, and fast, so she can't afford to leave even if she wanted to. Plenty of snappy dialogue and problem drinking in this scene; if you tried to match the characters' alcohol consumption you'd risk permanent liver damage. Lance and Nora sneak off to the trapped room and find a hollow space in the wall; Nora is surprised by the ghost woman and shows off an excellent example of the Fifties Scream. Lance doesn't see the figure, as it turns out. Nora meets up with Bridges after she flees and Annabelle later pumps her for information, telling her not to go anywhere in the house alone for her own safety. Next Annabelle meets up with Lance, telling him that Frederick had a reason for getting everyone there; she's afraid for her life because Frederick Loren killed all of his previous wives (an expensive funeral being preferable to a messy divorce). Another conversation between the Lorens turns dark and abusive--too much so to be enjoyable, to be honest. I'm all for a bit of lighthearted murder among friends, but only when things are played to the cheap seats and far removed from anything that smacks of actual realistic violence.

Nora finds a severed head in her luggage (so that's where it went!) and understandably freaks out. She gets grabbed by a creepy old guy that hasn't shown up before. It turns out that there's a narrative cheat--the ghostly woman and ghoulish man were caretakers, and had been at the house all along. Boo, sir. Boo, I say.

The caretakers leave at midnight and the doors are locked. Frederick Loren provides party favors for everyone; in little coffin-shaped boxes, no less. Everyone gets a .45 automatic to protect themselves, even Annabelle. Nora tells everyone to follow her to her assigned room so she can show them the severed head she found. Of course, it's not there. Doctor Trent, acting as male authority figure, offers to sedate Nora (and she pitches a fit in response). Lance asks Ruth to look after Nora and the doctor cautions Frederick that scaring the typist any more would be a bad idea.

Lance goes looking around and finds the severed head in a closet. There's a scream from upstairs and Annabelle's body is found hanging in the stairwell (though the shot is set up to make the audience think it's Nora at first). The way the rope is tied to the bannister makes it impossible for Annabelle to have hanged herself. Lance locks Nora in her room and tells her to shoot any intruders as a precaution while he does that late 50s masculine investigator thing. Meanwhile, Pritchard walks in on Frederick and gets strangled, yelled at and booted out of the room for his troubles.

Downstairs, Dr. Trent is conferring with the guests; it's obvious to everyone that things have deteriorated. Frederick says his wife had to have been murdered, pointing out the impossibility of her hanging herself the way the rope was tied to the bannister. During the ensuing discussion (where it's pointed out that Loren had a motive and opportunity to kill his wife during the party) Frederick points out that he's not stupid enough to use a method that screams "murder" to even the most casual observer and that it had to be someone else.

Eventually everyone decides to lock themselves in their bedrooms, alone, and point their guns at the door. Pritchard says that it won't help if the ghosts are feeling homicidal but follows the plan anyway. The doctor's doorknob turns but when he opens the door to check who it is, there's nobody there. Another blood spatter hits Ruth's hand because we were due for another hysterical screaming fit from a female character and we're down to two of them.

Lance knocks on the connecting door to Nora's room and says he'll look for a way out of the house; if he finds one he'll come back for her and they can bolt. The inevitable third-act thunderstorm starts up as Nora locks her door again. Lance finds a secret door in the hallway and walks through it (now at least there's a reason for the ways the caretakers could vanish or show up whenever the story needed them to). Meanwhile, a rope moves on its own through Nora's window and ties itself around her ankle. She looks outside and sees Annabelle floating; then the rope leaves. She flees the room and sees a body hanging in the hall. A creepy burned hand tries to cover her mouth but she screams and flees. Just to add to the chaos, an organ starts playing itself.

Dr. Trent knocks on Frederick's door. The door opens and Loren is there, pointing his gun at the doctor. Trent says he heard someone walking around and the organ music; the pair split up and look for whoever it is. The doctor goes back to Annabelle's room, where she is lying in her bed. As you'd expect. What you would not expect is that she's still alive! Trent tells her it's almost over and all the details are perfect. They're setting Nora up to shoot Frederick, and both are going to meet up in the cellar any minute now. When Annabelle hears the gunshot, she's supposed to go to the cellar and meet up with Trent.

In the cellar, the lights are dim and Nora sees Frederick approaching. She shoots him and Dr. Trent opens the acid tank to dispose of the body; when Annabelle comes down to the cellar it's completely empty and silent. In a pretty eerie scene, the doors close one by one and a skeleton rises up from the acid pool (which, in theaters, was accompanied by a glow in the dark skeleton moving over the audience--I wish I could have seen the movie in EMERGO! some time). Annabelle tries to leave but the skeleton pushes her into the acid tank.

And then we get the standard "no, it totally wasn't ghosts" ending that Fifties horror had to provide. Apparently the launch of Sputnik in 1958 scared the shit out of everyone to the point where all the monsters had to have scientific explanations, even in cheapo quickly made movies like this one (or, by way of other examples, the werewolf and vampire from I was a Teenage Werewolf and The Blood of Dracula were both created via hypnosis and psychology rather than supernatural curses). So in this film, right after Annabelle gets pushed into the acid, we see Frederick walk out into the lighted area in the cellar with a really complicated-looking puppeteering rig. The four survivors join him in the cellar where he reveals that the guns were all loaded with blanks and that he knew Dr. Trent and his wife were having an affair and plotting to kill him, so he outdid them at their own game of murder (I assume the skeleton in the acid tank was Dr. Trent's, but how did Frederick survive his own dip in there?). It's a goofy-ass ending that makes less sense than "an angry ghost did it" and it undercuts the stinger where Pritchard says the ghosts are coming for him and then the audience.


The director, William Castle, was a master of ballyhoo, gimmicks and spending a little to make a movie look like a lot. He got quite good performances out of his cast in this one (although they're playing pretty stock characters, to be honest) and there's some nice shots of ominous goings-on. But it doesn't hold together even while you're watching it and all the flaws pop up seconds after the credits roll. To the extent that it's worth watching, it's to see Vincent Price sink his teeth into the scenery and be a suave antihero. Which is always worth the time for me, and hopefully it is for you.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  The H-Man

Yes, I Know:  The Haunted Strangler


  1. Did you see the Geoffrey Rush/Famke Janssen remake? It's been a while but I remember thinking it was good for a haunted house movie. The Rush-Janssen venom-banter killed.

  2. I saw it, and it wasn't that bad. Geoffrey Rush does a GREAT impression of Vincent Price, and he looked like he was having a blast.