Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

The House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959) It's your typical haunted house story with a particularly greedy and venal twist (enough so that it would make an interesting "reality" show*): a clutch of "swells" are invited to spend a night in a "ghoul" houseone designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, no less—that has seen seven murders and is ahunted by the restless spirits of the victims; whoever can stay in that mansion for one night will be rewarded $10,000, paid by the erudite (and eccentric) millionaire-host Frederick Loren (Vincent Price).  The history of the house is verified by one of the guests, the paranoid and alcoholic Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr.) who babbles on about the strange goings-on and things that go bump, crash, splash and sizzle in the night.

The architecture of the place is a little suspect—Wright, notwithstanding—secret rooms, disappearing doors, and a basement with an amenity no house should be without, a basement with a pit-bath of hydrochloric acid...handy if there's no recycling service.  

And just to spice things up a bit (because God knows a haunted house isn't enough), each participant is given a loaded pistol, decoratively placed in a small complimentary coffin.  What good firearms would do against restless spirits, already dead, is a question, but the answer would lead one to suspect that ghosts may not be the main problem at the address.  But, that's never brought up.  Pretty soon, people start disappearing, getting conked, grabbed, and (when all else fails) killed.  Through it all, Loren just smiles and cracks wise in sepulchral tones.  It's his party, you can die if you want to.

Director Castle—the P.T. Barnum of the movies—enhanced this with a gimmick he called "Emergo"—a glowing skeleton would emerge from a casket stage-left and fly over the audience (not exactly "smell-o-vision" but it would do).  Just one more feint in a movie full of them, both momentary and unexplained, as castle was the master of the cheap trick.

*—although that entire phrase ('interesting reality show") is complexedly oxymoronic)

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