House on Haunted Hill October 6, 2016
If Vincent Price weren’t such an integral part of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, then maybe I’d be more open to the idea of that said central home actually being encrusted with the evilest things that go bump in the night. But since Price is so damn good at playing opportunists with an unbecoming tendency to only look out for themselves in this cruel world, more plausible is the idea that something is amiss, that the titular house only resides on a haunted hill because it was decided one day that paranormality were more attractive than suburban normality.
And we’d be right that human manipulation is more a part of House on Haunted Hill’s summation of thrills and chills than authentic ghostliness. But because there are hints of Double Indemnity here and hints of Gaslight there, with little touches of Hammer Horror randiness in-between, you can bet that the film is more fond of revealing the punchy tricks up its sleeve than going through the motions and hoping its audience doesn’t guess its next course of action.
Since Castle is as much an energetic filmmaker as a master of the gimmick — he emphasized the scare tactics of the film’s climax by releasing a hanging, plastic skeleton over the audience at the nick of time — House on Haunted Hill turns out to be schlock with an infectious sense of humor and a couple convincing frights. It’s campy macabre served with a smile, niftily made but never repugnantly cheap. We don’t guffaw at the film because it’s bad in the ways consumers of the now expect 1950s horror to be; we laugh because Castle is so in control of the tongue-in-cheek insanities, and the appropriate response is to revel in the twisted glee he so beautifully crafts.
Price is the cherry on top to Castle’s cinematic apple pie à la mode. In House on Haunted Hill, he is Frederick Warren, an anomalous millionaire who challenges five people to stay overnight in his supposedly haunted mansion for $10,000 apiece. Because he’s so certain that the grand majority will be too weak willed to make it to the morning, he gives them until midnight to leave. If the clock ticks past the witching hour, all will be forced to endure the terrors of the night no matter the excuse.
Tritely, everyone stays far past the expiration date, but clear is that all goings-on are underlined in psychological calculation rather than the metaphysical. What the real motives of those goings-on, though, are to be kept secret — and only Mr. Warren, with his quippy sardonicism and his enigmatic glances, is able to reveal the truth.
But while those truths are ghastly, the ghastliness is fetching, if only because it’s wrapped in such playfulness. As House of Haunted Hill’s characters wander through their host’s cobweb ridden, shadow lined humble abode, we, unabashedly, want them to run into mayhem, especially since deciphering if the mayhem is the result of someone else’s cunning or is the result of something genuinely dangerous is such a convivial thing to witness. The ending is a knockout, batshit and wicked (with a hint of Scooby-Doo level spookiness), and the tilt-a-whirl ride that gets us there isn’t so shabby itself.
Price, of course, is a knockout. House on Haunted Hill is one of his best vehicles, witnessing him at his smarmiest and his most guileful. For Castle fans, it’s a must. An iconic moment in ‘50s horror, this is a popcorn movie with money on the brain just as intent on pleasing its audience as it is making some green. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the illusion that I’m being catered to is held steady. Thankfully, it