House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Directed by William Castle – Starring Vincent Price, Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook, Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal, and Julie Mitchum.
Horror Month at the Anxiety starts with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a film I chose primarily because 1. it was available to stream on Netflix, and 2. it stars Vincent Price. After a Western Month that saw me looking at not one Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, John Ford, or John Wayne movie, I wanted to start with something from one of the actors or directors most associated with the genre.
And that really meant only one person: Vincent Price.
William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a perfect place to start Horror Month, if for no other reason than it shows exactly what has happened to the genre in the last 50 years. This is a movie built on tension and unease more than simple shock and slash. The result is a film that takes a while to get going but the final act of the film more than makes up for it.
Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites five people to spend the night with him and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) at a haunted house, and anyone who stays the night gets $10,000. (Ah, $10,000. Don’t you love the ’50s?) We’re introduced to the characters in a classic roll call as they sit in the back of cars on their way to the house. Price narrates their introductions, giving us a little clue about each: Nora (Carolyn Craig) supports her whole family on the pay she makes being a secretary at one of Loren’s companies, Lance the pilot (Richard Long), Watson (Elisha Cook), who actually owns the property but wants nothing to do with it because his brother and sister-in-law were murdered there, Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal), a shrink, and Ruth (Julie Mitchum), a newspaper columnist with a gambling problem.
Loren pretty much tells you right at the start who’s going to be the ultimate bad guy here, as Dr. Trent both doesn’t need the money and Loren questions his motives.
Once everyone gets to the house the film kinda spins in neutral for a bit. Loren and Annabelle are a toxic couple – she keeps insisting she doesn’t want anything to do with this party and he keeps insisting the party is for her and she will attend. Annabelle is Loren’s fourth wife and she lets him know she has no intention of him getting to number five; she’s already tried to kill him once, and she lets him know if she could get away with it, she’d do it again.
Annabelle is quickly killed by hanging and her body is lain to rest.
The movie largely focuses on the adventures of Nora and Lance. They go exploring and are visited by a ghost that turns out to be the housekeeper. Nora is the target by the haunted house time and again and as the story progresses, accusations begin flying. HOUSE does a solid job playing with Loren’s innocence or guilt. Price is completely fantastic throughout HOUSE, playing both the manipulator and victim. As the ghouls start flying and tensions are at their peak (with Winston always around to ratchet things up with his nervous nature), Loren reveals that he’s known the score all along: Trent and Annabelle were secretly plotting to have him killed. Trent shoots him but Loren filled their guns with blanks and uses the acid pool in the basement to have a large, marionette skeleton steer his wife into the acid.
It’s a truly fantastic conclusion, with Loren revealed as the guy pulling the strings and playing the angles all along. When he’s discovered in the basement, he calmly states that he’s ready for the lay to decide his guilt or innocence, knowing what’s happened here is too unbelievable to have blame placed at his feet.
Slow beginning but a powerful conclusion makes HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL a film well worth watching.