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The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

by on 2011/10/07

“Does it go anywhere?”

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As a sort of elder statesman of mid-Twentieth Century horror, it makes good sense to turn our attention to the work of Vincent Price. I grew up knowing him from the Canadian TV show, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, and we’ve watched him in such classics as the, er, “memorable” film noir Laura.

Arguably one of his better-known and better-loved efforts was The House on Haunted Hill, a subject so forgettably remade that — although Gru swears we saw it together — I don’t recall a moment of it.

The story concerns Frederick Loren (Price) and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) hosting a gathering for five random strangers. They challenge the group to remain in a supposedly haunted mansion from midnight until the following morning, for a prize of ten thousand dollars each.

The visitors include psychiatrist David Trent (Alan Marshal), test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), secretary Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), and a superstitious one-time survivor of the house, panicky idiot Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). The latter actor is most familiar to me, having appeared in a raft of genre pictures, including The Big Sleep, The Maltese FalconOne-Eyed JacksRosemary’s Baby, Salem’s Lot, and Shane.

The movie’s scenery is just as packed as its close-quarters cast. The storm-besieged labyrinthine house is filled with secret passages, apparitions, skeletons, figures lurking in the shadows, creaking, slamming, self-locking doors, coffins, flickering candles, severed heads and an automatic organ. Organs also feature in the typical music score, along with voices wailing in piercing Theremin fashion.

But all of this decoration fails to distract us from the fact House is actually a murder mystery masquerading as a shocker, and not a particularly good one, I’m afraid. Surprises can be good yet, once you discover “whodunit”, the solution is too unexpected to accept. I felt cheated there were no proper clues seeded throughout the tale so — while the explanation wasn’t impossible — when revealed, it came out of the blue.

Imagine a hero struggling to defeat his nemesis, only to have a meteor fall from the sky and kill him in the final act. Yes, it gets the job done, but it also subverts whatever narrative went before. That’s how I reacted to Haunted Hill.

Admittedly, there are a couple of instances of genuine surprise, both involving the frightening of Nora Manning. However, Carolyn Craig’s ear-splitting screams destroy those thrilling moments with their frequency and, well, their frequencies.

In a similar vein, Elisha Cook’s character is unpleasant enough to detract, alternately drunk and superstitious. On the other hand, Julie Mitchum is given almost nothing to do but exist. The plot has, apparently, no proper use for her.

I was not entirely captivated, for I spent much of my time observing how the people and situations here reminded me of other people and situations. Alan Marshal conjured Cary Grant. Richard Long resembled William Shatner. And Carol Ohmart seems to be channeling Barbara Stanwyck. Story-wise, I kept flashing forward to Clue and Cube, where groups of strangers are confined and winnowed down.

On balance, The House on Haunted Hill is a reasonable distraction, if not especially distracting overall. The trappings of an old-school horror are present, though not integral, and the mystery itself is a bit of a flop. The single best reason to check it out is to enjoy Vincent Price in a scene-chewing role of sheer guilty pleasure fun.

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Full movie (public domain) available here:
http://www.archive.org/details/The_House_On_Haunted_Hill

Unrated

75 minutes

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