Saturday, January 30, 2016

What I Did For Love: House on Haunted Hill

Writer Toby Roan – master of the 50 Westerns From the Fifties blog – invited various bloggers to write about films made by, or distributed through, Allied Artists.  Most of the films distributed through AA were, to put it politely, junk.  AA distributed hoards of Bowery Boys films, cut-rate Charlie Chan mysteries, Bomba the Jungle Boy flicks (a particular favorite here at The Jade Sphinx), and a seeming endless stream of westerns.

I’m sure Marshall Roan was hoping for a saddlebag full of westerns for his blogathon; and, knowing my love of westerns, it would only make sense that I comply.  So … to be utterly contrary, I decided to look at a horror film instead (!), starring arts-advocate and Renaissance Man Vincent Price (1911-1993).

There are movies that all of us saw in our childhood that we have returned to again and again.  One movie that I have been looking at all of my life is House on Haunted Hill (1959).  I am not blind (nor immune) to the many faults of this picture.  The screenplay makes almost no sense – and even less sense once everything is “explained.”  (It doesn’t even possess much of the internal logic necessary for the suspension of disbelief.)  The pacing is at times dodgy.  The special effects aren’t cheesy as much as they are silly. 

It is … irresistible.  I recently re-viewed this film before writing this piece, and just thinking about it inspires me to fire-up the DVD player once again.

The plot, briefly, is this:  eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) invites five strangers to a “haunted house” party he is throwing to amuse his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart).  He promises the survivors (or their heirs) $10,000 if they stay the night – the doors will be locked at midnight, and it would be impossible to get in or out of the house.

The five guests include newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum, who is terrific), test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), Loren’s employee Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig, who screams fetchingly), and the house’s owner, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). 

Of course, there are all kinds of wonderful spook-show shenanigans.  Annabelle hangs herself (or does she?); Nora finds a severed head in her luggage (no TSA in those days); Schroeder is taken out of the action with a blow to the noggin in a dark closet; and Watson slowly gets drunker and drunker while warning everyone that they will die horribly before the night is out.  And did I mention there was a vat of acid in the basement?

House on Haunted Hill was produced and directed by the legendary William Castle (1914-1977).  Castle specialized in budget horror and suspense thrillers; but the real key to his peculiar genius was in marketing his films.  The Tingler (1959), about a lobster-like monster that … sort of tingles you to death, premiered in theaters wired with vibrating chairs.  The process was called Percepto – and Your Correspondent saw a revival of The Tingler at New York’s Film Forum, complete with vibrating chairs.  I still haven’t recovered.  His film 13 Ghosts (1960) included special red and blue glasses to see the ghosts.  Mr. Sardonicus (1961) allowed viewers to vote on the fate of the film’s villain.

House on Haunted Hill had as its gimmick a process called Emergo – where things actually come out of the screen.  At the key moment of the climax when a skeleton menaces one of the protagonists, a cardboard skeleton came out via a clothesline in select theaters.  I saw that at Film Forum as well, where the audience hooted in delirious derision, throwing popcorn and jujubes at the skeleton.  Take that, The Force Awakens.

There is no reason for this stuff to work, but it does.  Part of it is the performances, which are unusually fine.  Ohmart, as Price’s evil, ice-queen bride, is simply fabulous.  Sexy, scheming, clearly intelligent and purring like an over-fed cat, Ohmart delivers work that would not be out of place in a bigger-budget film noir.  Speaking of film noir, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe’s friend Elisha Cook performs with an admirable amount of intense terror – this is a man drinking himself into stupefaction because any other option is too horrifying to contemplate. Cook plays hysteria without ever becoming a cartoon, and it reminds us that he was actually a terrific actor with the right material.  Mitchum adds wonderful support as the sophisticated (but tough) newspaper columnist.  See this film and wonder … why wasn’t this woman a bigger star?

Vincent Price, however, completely owns House on Haunted Hill.  Though he had made horror pictures before (including House of Wax and The Fly), this is the film where Price finally honed his screen persona.  Tongue planted firmly in cheek, this is mischievous villainy; one could say that he served his nastiness on wry.  It’s not that Price delivers a camp performance (and, though that charge has been leveled against him, he never really did); but, rather, Price had a genius for making the audience complicit with him.  Price was a heavy who twinkled, and he carried out his most evil machinations on the balls of his feet.

He uses all of his many gifts to great effect here.  His silken, velvety voice brings the right touch of ironic menace to such lines as, “these miniature coffins were my wife’s idea – she’s so amusing;” or, my favorite, “remember the fun we had the night you poisoned me.”  In addition to his voice, he uses his imposing height, his infallible sense of comedic timing, and his look of blasé sophistication.  It really wasn’t until this film that he fully owned his own screen persona, and watching Vincent Price blossom is the chief delight of House on Haunted Hill.

Somehow, House on Haunted Hill has fallen into the public domain, and can be seen readily online.  Here is a Youtube link:  Spend an hour and fifteen minutes at The House on Haunted Hill.  You won’t be disappointed.


Bob Johns said...

This is one of my favorite William Castle movies. Great write up.
It Came from The Man Cave!

James Abbott said...

Many thanks. Despite everything that is wrong with it (and there is a great deal wrong with it), HOHH is irresistible.