Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The House on Haunted Hill

I love a good William Castle movie.

I love a bad one, too. Which is convenient, because most of Castle's films fall into "so bad it's good" territory.

My Tuesday night movie group settled on Ugetsu last night, but we rented it from iTunes while iTunes was in the middle of a partial outage, so we were unable to stream it. Our second choice was The House on Haunted Hill which most of the group had already seen, but not recently.

The House on Haunted Hill stars Vincent Price as Fredrick Loren, an eccentric millionaire who has rented an allegedly haunted house to throw a party for his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). Actually, it's her party, but he's in charge of the guest list. It's a confusing arrangement; none of the guests know the Lorens or each other. All they know is that anyone who manages to spend the entire night in the house will receive $10,000, and if anyone dies, his or her money will be split between the remaining players. Loren privately confides to us that the five players are employed by his various companies, and that all have need of the money.

No one is comfortable with the arrangement, and Annabelle refuses to leave her room. The psychiatrist goes around making pop-psych observations on everyone's behavior, the society columnist watches everyone with disdainful disapproval, and owner of the house, Watson Pritchard (the terminally timid Elisha Cook, Jr.), tells stories of the various murders perpetrated there. He takes the tales seriously, but others do not. Loren takes them on a tour past the vat of acid in the basement, and .45 caliber pistols are passed out as party favors. Loren forces Annabelle to put in an appearance, and it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that they're not good for each other. Fredrick is on his fourth wife, and Annabelle has tried to poison him in the past. She tells the guests that he is not to be trusted, and retires to her room. At midnight, the caretakers leave without warning, locking everyone in for the night.

Pritchard finds a kindred spirit in Nora Manning, a sweet young woman who needs the money more than most. She does not want to be here, but she supports her entire family on a meager salary, and the $10,000 would be a great boon. She is credulous of Pritchard's tales, especially after encountering a ghostly apparition in the basement. Soon, Annabelle's hanged body is found; an apparent suicide. Everyone goes to bed, and Nora is visited by Annabelle's ghost. Her nerves fray to the point that when Loren startles her later, she accidentally shoots him.

Ultimately--and here's where I spoil the movie--it all turns out to be a setup inside of a ruse. Annabelle isn't dead--she's conspired with her lover, the psychiatrist, to murder Loren. Loren, anticipating foul play, loaded the guns with blanks. In the movie's climactic scene, a struggle ensues in front of the vat of acid, and Loren pushes the psychiatrist over the edge in self defense. Annabelle comes downstairs and is attacked by a skeleton, which pursues her until she, too, falls into the vat. The skeleton is revealed to be a marionette ingeniously rigged by Loren. Presumably, it's the psychiatrist's skeleton.

The House on Haunted Hill was never considered a good movie. It's ridiculous. The plot completely falls apart under scrutiny. There's no possible way that Loren could rig the skeleton so quickly. Annabelle's plan to scare Nora into shooting Loren involves an ordinary rope which snakes its way through a window, creeps around Nora's feet, and winds itself around her legs in a way that is physically impossible. Liquid drips from the ceiling on a character who shouts "blood!" "No," says Loren, "just a little rainwater." ONLY IN A BLACK AND WHITE MOVIE IS IT POSSIBLE TO MISTAKE BLOOD FOR RAINWATER. Characters say incredibly obtuse things and behave totally irrationally.

This is the kind of movie you watch when you want to ridicule something, and it always has been. I don't think audiences were ever frightened by it, but apparently they enjoyed it. Castle, famous for using in-theater gimmicks to market his films, dreamed up "Emergo", a skeleton which flew over the audience as Annabelle fled the skeleton onscreen. People pelted it with popcorn boxes and soda cups. They might not have had great words for the movie, but they certainly had a good time. The film was successful at the box office, and reportedly inspired Alfred Hitchcock to direct the similarly-cheap Psycho. Castle responded with his own psychological thriller, Homicidal, which is a vastly better movie by most standards than The House on Haunted Hill. But this one is so damned much fun.

See it with a group. Maybe buy a plastic skeleton to spring on them at the appropriate time. You don't even have to watch it first to get the timing down--you'll know.

Click here to watch the trailer.
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