House on Haunted Hill
Dir. William Castle (1959)
Five people have the opportunity to win $10,000 by staying the night in an allegedly haunted house.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
One of my earliest horror memories is watching House on Haunted Hill, curled up on the couch beside my dad. Vincent Price is obviously legendary, but at the time the only place I knew him from was his appearance in Thriller, of which I was absolutely terrified. My dad talked me into watching the movie, telling me it was a little scary but was also a great movie. He wasn’t wrong, and it helped ignite my love of the genre that has taken up so much room on my shelves and in my heart. Directed by William Castle, and probably his best-known film, House on Haunted Hill is an excellent foray into classic, gothic horror, a good old-fashioned ghost story that has influenced thousands of horror creators into the next century.
The owner of Hill House has offered five “lucky” people $10,000 to stay the night in his house that may or may not be haunted, picking five who needed the money and were motivated not to quit until they had it in their grasps. Each of them have their own reasons for fighting for the money, which equates to a little over a hundred grand today, and their desperate need for money will eventually come into play throughout the film. It’s very much a film of its era, the “mystery within a mystery” popularized by Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie but with a scary backdrop and gorgeous gothic scenery.
What I did find interesting about this film, and I previously noticed but didn’t comment on in The Tingler, the other Castle/Price film I reviewed, is the rampant misogyny that is ultra-noticeable in horror films made in this era. While part of the plot is that Vincent Price and his wife aren’t fans of each other, the way that he talks to her would hardly be allowed today. They trade barbs back and forth like Oscar Wilde, hardly taking a breath before insulting the others’ character again and again. It’s fascinating to watch from a socio-cinematic perspective, and if there hasn’t been a dissertation-level dissection of it yet, there absolutely should be.
The film moves quickly, shifting from scare to scare in a way that must have been incredibly unnerving to audiences of the day. Castle, known for his in-theater gimmicks, didn’t slouch on this one either: his “Emergo” experience involved flying a skeleton over the audience on a wire during the scene where the (very real) skeleton appears in the film, reeling it back into its box just as the one in the film disappears. The initial “jumpscare,” which involves scary sounds being played in the pitch black theater, was such a huge hit that it inspired an entire industry of creating albums with scary sounds to play during Halloween parties. It’s an incredibly influential film, gimmicks aside, inspiring a remake as well as countless haunted house movies produced in the decades since. It’s also genuinely scary at times, with a creepy, anxiety-inducing score and a dark aesthetic that holds up incredibly well.
House on Haunted Hill is a great movie to help usher in the spooky season: it’s scary enough to hold your interest while not being too scary for kids. It’s one of Price’s best roles, and it’s old Hollywood horror at its absolute best. It belongs on any best-of lists, and it deftly avoids the cheese trap that so many films of the time jumped into headfirst. It’s a serious movie and it doesn’t pull any punches: it must’ve been quite scary at the time, and it isn’t not scary even now. The film also contains a few jumpscares, popularizing a feature that (often unfortunately) lives on to this day.
Who this movie is for: classic horror lovers; black and white movie fans;
Bottom line: One of the best horror movies of the 50’s and one of the most influential ever made, House on Haunted Hill holds up and is absolutely worth a watch. There are so many things in this film that echo into those made today, and its filled with the excellent acting and cinematography that characterized films of its era. Vincent Price is stellar as always in arguably his most famous role, chewing the scenery as only he can. This is one that should go on a regular Halloween rotation, and it’s as creepy as it is entertaining. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to give it a watch.