I’m Vincent Price, and you’re invited to my party in the House on Haunted Hill.
Whoa! A party at Vincent Price’s house?! I’m in!
Where so far, the ghosts have murdered only seven people. So won’t you come and make it… eight?
Heck yeah! Er, no, wait, WHAT?! O_O
Hello, darlings. It’s that time of the year again already! I’ve got my imaginary Elvira costume on as I sit down to write about my FAVOURITE movie ever — “House on Haunted Hill”.
“What’s your favourite movie?” It’s probably one of the most common questions you can be asked. But perhaps a better question is WHY is a particular movie your favourite. Sometimes there are clear-cut reasons why we enjoy something. But there are also times when you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what it is that appeals to you.
So when I sat down last week to rewatch this incredibly spooky William Castle production, I tried to pay very close attention to why I was enjoying it so much.
“House on Haunted Hill” has a lot going for it. First and foremost, it stars Vincent Price, one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. Price plays eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, whose devilish scheming wife, Annabelle, has asked him to throw a party. “A haunted house party. Hmm. She’s so amusing.”
The first scene between Annabelle and Frederick is delightful. They spitefully banter about the time she tried to kill him. “Something you ate, the doctor said.” “Yes, arsenic on the rocks.”
As Frederick, Price is smug and pompous, arrogant and sly. And only Vincent Price could look so sincere and sinister at the same time. You really don’t know if you can trust him or not. With just the raise of an eyebrow, his face absolutely transforms from innocent to guilty as sin. Price purrs his way through the script, looking absolutely immaculate in his suit and that wonderfully villainous moustache.
But it’s not just Vincent Price that makes this film so special. No, I think what it has going for it more than anything else is atmosphere. The elaborate set, the characters/actors, the music and sound/special effects — all of it works together brilliantly to create a scary and gloomy atmosphere that pervades every single scene. It hangs from the darkest cobwebbed doorways of the house and lurks around every corner.
“House on Haunted Hill” was a movie with a very simple plot: Five guests are offered $10,000 each if they can spend (and survive) the entire night locked in a house which is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of seven murder victims. Not a whole lot happens in this film, but every second of it is chilling.
From the opening scene where Vincent Price’s disembodied head invites us in, to the famous floating skeleton at the end, it’s pure unadulterated suspense. This is a psychological thriller more than it is a straight-up horror flick, and what sets it apart from other films is how all this subtlety can lead to such big climactic scares.
“House on Haunted Hill” isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. The film boasts a deliciously haunting musical score composed and conducted by Von Dexter. The music is perfectly suited to every scene. You get moments of silence, then a spooky melody builds to a climax, and there are of course screams galore. It’s so quiet at times that an unexpected scare can really make you jump. There’s really not a whole lot of “action” in this film. It’s a house full of people running around accusing each other of murder and plotting and hiding out in their rooms. But this treatment of music and silence does its job of holding the viewer is the grips of anticipation and suspense.
Producer/director William Castle, who would go on to produce the famous “Rosemary’s Baby”, really outdid himself when it came to screenings of “House on Haunted Hill”. For the film, he created the “Emergo” — a skeleton attached to a pulley system that could be flown out above the audience in the theatre.
The film is SO good at keeping your undivided attention that I can well imagine jumping out of my seat if a skeleton suddenly flew out from the screen!
There are so many spooky little touches that make “House on Haunted Hill” so delightful. The attention to detail is marvelous. Case in point: The party favours. Frederick reveals loaded guns in little coffin-shaped boxes.
A lot of people knock the special effects of classic Hollywood, but there are some exceptionally scary ones in this film. My favourite is a ghostly Annabelle who comes to Nora’s window and dispatches a phantom rope which creeps slowly across the floor and around the poor girl’s ankles. And somehow it’s even creepier when the tape is played in reverse to show the rope retracting back out the window as Annabelle disappears into the night.
Another special effect triumph is the decapitated head that Nora finds in her suitcase. As far as props in 1959 go, this is pretty gruesome!
Throughout the film, Carolyn Craig’s (Nora) facial expressions run the gamut, from apprehensive, to frightened, to sweaty palms, to full-on terrified out of her mind, as is illustrated in this spooky scene with a monster’s hand.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of screaming done in this film. Nora is as skittish as Frankenstein’s monster around fire, and creeping through the house alone with her loaded gun, she’s just as dangerous too. Which is the point, really.
See, for a film with such an easy-sounding plot, it’s really anything but simple. Some crafty minds have been at work here. The double twist ending is like eating a box of your favourite cereal only to discover that there’s a toy inside that you didn’t expect. You’d have eaten the cereal anyway because it’s so good, but the surprise toy just makes your mouth drop open in delight.
As it turns out, this has all been a very elaborate plan set in motion by Annabelle and Dr. Trent, who are secretly having an affair. They staged the entire evening: the scary gags, the parlour tricks — like the player piano and that severed head in Nora’s suitcase — Annabelle’s hanging, Nora being attacked in the cellar. Everything they’ve done has led up to one thing — Nora, in a frightened, panicked state, killing Frederick. Which will leave Annabelle and David with all of his money.
Well, I hate to burst your treacherous little bubble, Annabelle, but that’s the diabolical Vincent Price you’re married to, and the double-crossers are about to get double-crossed.
Sorry, I’m about to get all fangirly here, but this is one of THE best endings to a film.
Nora is overcome with fear and does indeed shoot Frederick. Hearing the shot, Annabelle makes her way to the basement to meet up with David and to gloat over her newly-dead husband’s body. Rarely has a squeaking door been so dang scary as when it slowly closes behind Annabelle as she enters the basement. You know the only thing that could be scarier? TWO squeaking doors sealing her in. Oh, and because this is the best movie EVER? There’s a THIRD squeaking door. Thank you, Mr. Castle. A thousand times, thank you.
Annabelle calls out, but she appears to be alone. She walks slowly towards the open vat of acid in the floor. Why is there a vat of dangerous, flesh-eating acid in the basement? It’s Vincent Price’s house. Why WOULDN’T there be an open vat of flesh-eating acid? Duh.
As Annabelle peers into the acid, the following awesomeness happens. I pity the younger generation who grew up with expensive, overdone CGI. Who the hell needs it?
Yes, our first glimpse of the real star of “House on Haunted Hill”– the Skeleton! He even gets his own line in the credits, which just tickles me for some reason.
As the skeleton stalks Annabelle, Price’s unmistakeable voice rings out. “At last you’ve got it all. Everything I have. Even my life. But you’re not going to live to enjoy it. Come with me, murderess. Come with me.”
Mr. Bones slowly backs a screaming Annabelle towards the acid vat. And then…
Oops. She just slipped, I swear. I was only asking for her number, I tell you!
And then SURPRISE! It was Frederick all along! He’s not dead after all! Nora’s gun was loaded with blanks.
He already knew of Annabelle’s plot to murder him and he outfoxed everyone. Here Price delivers my favourite bit of dialogue from the entire film.
Good night, doctor. Good night, Annabelle. The crime you two planned was indeed perfect. Only the victim is alive and the murderers are not.
Gives me chills every time. Whenever this episode ends, I always have a body covered in goosebumps and a huge grin on my face. It’s scary, it’s suspenseful, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I guess you could even call this Robb White-penned story… Priceless. ;D
So whaddaya say? Who’s up for spending the night in the house on Haunted Hill? A night of thrills and chills, screams and bad dreams? Blood drops and scary props? I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a killer time to me.
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .
The ghosts are waiting, so won’t you join me in the House on Haunted Hill? Hurry, or you’ll be late for your own funeral.