House on Haunted Hill

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House on Haunted Hill

Horror, Mystery | 75 mins | Released: 1959
Director: William Castle
Starring: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Alan Marshal, Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook Jr., Julie Mitchum
Our Rating: 7
Black & White

In House on Haunted Hill, eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites five people to a “party” he is throwing for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), in an allegedly haunted house he has rented, promising to give them each $10,000 with the stipulation that they must stay the entire night in the house after the doors are locked at midnight. The five guests are test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long); newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum); psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), who specializes in hysteria; Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), who works for one of Loren’s companies; and the house’s owner Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). Pritchard disapproves of Loren’s use of the house for his “party,” making it unclear how Loren acquired access to the house in the first place.

Arriving late at night in separate funeral cars with a hearse leading the procession, Loren’s guests are told the rules of the party, and each is given a .45 caliber pistol for protection. Forced to attend the party, Loren’s wife tries to warn the guests that her husband is psychotic, causing them to be very suspicious of him. Nora becomes convinced that he’s trying to kill her when she keeps seeing frightening apparitions, including the ghost of Annabelle, who had apparently hanged herself sometime during the night.

Almost as frightened as Nora is Watson Pritchard. He is convinced that the house is genuinely haunted by the ghosts of those killed there in the past, including his own brother, and that those ghosts have the power to “come for” (kill) anyone in the house. Schroeder is attacked in a basement room but is convinced his attacker was real and tries to calm Nora’s fears.

It is eventually revealed that Annabelle, in league with her lover, Dr. Trent, faked her death in an attempt to frighten Nora so badly that she will be compelled to shoot Loren. After being driven into a fit of hysteria by the repeated frights she has experienced during the night, Nora, seeing Loren walking toward her in the basement with a gun in his hand, does indeed shoot him. After she flees the room, Dr. Trent slips in and tries to get rid of Loren’s body by pushing it into a vat of acid there (which had been used by a previous resident named Norton to kill his own wife), but the lights go out, and the sounds of a struggle and splash are heard followed by hissing and rapid bubbling.

Hearing the gunshot, Annabelle rushes down to the basement to confirm that her husband is dead but finds the room empty. Suddenly, a skeleton rises from the acid accompanied by Loren’s disembodied voice. As the animated specter approaches, Annabelle recoils and screams in horror, accidentally falling into the acid herself. The real Loren then emerges from the shadows, holding the contraption that he used to manipulate the skeleton which is now revealed to be Dr. Trent’s. Triumphant, he states that when Annabelle and Trent were starting their “little game of murder” and planning to kill him that he was “playing too.” He then tosses Trent’s skeleton in the vat to dissolve in the acid.

Nora tells the other guests that she has shot Loren in the basement, but when they all arrive, they find him alive. He tells Nora that the gun she fired at him had been loaded with blanks, and explains to his guests that his wife and Dr. Trent had been trying to kill him and that they have each met their end in the vat of acid, adding solemnly that he is “ready for justice to decide” his guilt or innocence.

Watson Pritchard, still an avid believer in the supernatural, looks into the acid and declares that Annabelle and Dr. Trent have now joined the ranks of the house’s many ghosts. With a terrified expression on his face, he announces that the ghosts are now coming for him, then, breaking the fourth wall, he turns toward the camera and adds, “And then they’ll come for you.”

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Movie Notes:

House on Haunted Hill is a 1959 American horror film. It was directed by William Castle, written by Robb White and stars Vincent Price as eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren. He and his fourth wife, Annabelle, have invited five people to the house for a “haunted house” party. Whoever stays in the house for one night will earn $10,000. As the night progresses, all the guests are trapped inside the house with ghosts, murderers, and other terrors.

Exterior shots of the house were filmed at the historic Ennis House in Los Feliz, California.

The theatrical trailer promoted the film as The House on Haunted Hill, although all advertising material and the title on the film itself were simply titled House on Haunted Hill. The film is best known for a famous promotional gimmick used in the film’s original theatrical release called “Emergo.” William Castle placed an elaborate pulley system in some theaters showing the film which allowed a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience at the appropriate time. In August and September 2010, the Film Forum in New York City had a revival of the film (along with several other Castle pictures) that included the original gimmicks. This was the first time since the late 1980s Film Forum had done this.

Thanks in part to Castle’s gimmickry; the film was a huge success. Alfred Hitchcock took notice of the low-budget film’s performance at the box office and set out to make his own low-budget horror film, which became the critically acclaimed hit Psycho (1960). Castle was himself a Hitchcock fan, and would try to imitate Hitchcock’s work in later films such as Homicidal (1961).

The film received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a fresh 95% rating based on 22 reviews with an average rating of 7/10. Allmovie praised the film, writing, “Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”

The large grosses for this film were noticed by Alfred Hitchcock. This led him to create his own low-budget horror film – Psycho (1960).

The film’s opening was something of a jump scare gimmick, the total darkness accompanied by horrible noises echoing in a large movie theater would have been very terrifying, the effect is somewhat lost on a modern viewer watching the film on a television screen without the volume and scale to provide shock of theatrical sound and darkness.

The Ennis Brown House in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1924, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was used for the exterior shots of the haunted house during the film’s opening sequence.

William Castle had related the story of meeting Vincent Price on a day when Price had learned that he had been passed over for a part. Over coffee, Castle described the premise of this picture. Price liked the idea and it led to a two-picture collaboration, this and The Tingler (1959).

The opening Scare Trick in House on Haunted Hill was so effective that it actually started the idea of novelty “haunting records” records of spooky sounds and music mostly for Halloween and parties.

The story was loosely based on/inspired by the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, or 10 little Indians, and novel The Haunting Of Hill House.

The popular theme music originally had haunting lyrics by Richard Kayne, but only the orchestral version was used in the final film. For the record, the lyrics went as follows: “There’s a house on Haunted Hill / Where ev’rything’s lonely and still / Lonely and still / And the ghost of a sigh / When we whispered good-bye / Lingers on / And each night gives a heart-broken cry / There’s a house on Haunted Hill / Where love walked there’s a strange silent chill / Strange silent chill / There are mem’ries that yearn / For our hearts to return / And a promise we failed to fulfill / But we’ll never go back / No, we’ll never go back / To the house on Haunted Hill!”

Filmed September 3-16, 1958, for December release (copyright 1958).