Day 4 and what a day to enjoy! Vincent Price has the largest resume of acting credits to horror films than any other actor. His voice is absolutely breathtaking and his acting, for a lot of his cheesier films, amplifies them beyond what they should be. While the film, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, may fall ultimately into the cheesy non-scary category, it manages to be tense despite the age. This ultimately falls upon the performances
House on Haunted Hill is a classic horror film to say the least about it. It is about seven guests staying overnight in a haunted house at the behest of Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) for his wife’s birthday party. None of these guests are acquainted though, all chosen by the illustrious host with a reward in tow. For those who can survive and stay the night within the house, they will receive ten thousand dollars. A fabulous prize, one each of the guests were willing to come only to find out that they probably won’t be able to leave once the caretaker’s leave. Hysteria ensues into what is possibly one of the most fun horror films I have watched in a long time. Though does the film stand up today?
Vincent Price & Carol Ohmart play the titular married couple, the Lorens. The film itself hinges almost entirely upon the performance of these two and their cat & mouse games. Each little element almost construed as one big game to these two, both of them despising the other. Frederick Loren is a more physical man, one who when pushed will go to the lengths of grabbing his wife, whereas Annabelle Loren is someone who bides her time and uses her words to provoke her husband. The performance and moves made by these two actors create an awfully tense atmosphere when either are in the room together and it is quite noticeable. When supernatural happenstances begin to happen, is when this little quarrel grinds to a halt and the more terrifying hysteria is broken loose.
The other guests invited for the night mostly bring their own ideas to what is transpiring within the house. Pritchard is the caretaker of the house and the one with the most history with it. He believes that the house is haunted and is what drove his former family members to kill each other. This has caused him to hit the bottle hard, and the performance of Elisha Cook as Pritchard is just believable enough to keep you on your toes about the house’s supernatural aura. Nora (Carolyn Craig) is a scream queen through and through and does sell her breakdown into hysteria, even if she does puncture eardrums with those shrills. Lance is the classic tough good looking lead, and Dr. Trent and Ruth are barely even there for the most part. Really the only performances that made you care about the film’s overall interactions was the Lorens.
I watched the black & white version of the film, and while the coloured version does give an extra element to the design I think the film still stands up today. There is this cheesy vibe one feels originally when hearing the monologue from the heads of Vincent Price and Elisha Cook in the beginning, but that quickly changes. The film has layers to how tense the setting is. The overall outside design of the house is quite unique and feels like blocks piled up precariously and in random order. This obtuse design is our first taste of the house and the cinematography loves to force you into long shots, tracking shots which prolong each segment almost making it feel mystical. This adds to the supernatural layer that appears in the film thanks to Cook’s performance, we are always reminded that they want more souls to add to their collection. The original set up makes it seem like a murder mystery, yet there is always this lingering sentiment about its supernatural nature in the back of your mind. There is the tense atmosphere of the unexplained happenstances within the movie or the less explained circumstances much like the ceiling that bleeds. That feeling is also on top of the already tense feud you see between the Lorens, as well as the suspicions of the guests for their hosts over the course of the night. When each person is given a gun is when the film truly pays off on that atmosphere it builds and as you wait to see the chilling conclusion of what is truly going on in the House on Haunted Hill.
William Castle, has a true eye for utilizing a small budget to great effect. Choosing the outside aesthetic, which is the Ennis House in order to convey a sense of mystic to the overall architecture. While most of the shots were pretty standard, he does have a flair for shooting long drawn out hallways. Every shot of the hallway felt winding and disorienting, but also tense when we watched the guests stalk them. Though one could say the special effects are quite dated especially by today’s standards and at times quite hokey and laughable, I still find that they have a certain campy charm to them. Watching Castle’s film unfold was like being a child again, especially when my first run in with Vincent Price was of course with the Scooby-Doo classic series “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo”.
Thanks to the multiple layers of this film, the setting creating a tense set-up with its mystique, the Lorens feud creating a tense vibe between all of the cast, and Cook’s performance keeping the supernatural always in your mind, House on Haunted Hill easily manages to earn its classic horror mantle. The performances of both Price and Ohmart are well worth the watch, but they are merely just one cog in this machination. Each one turning and forcing us to consider multiple outcomes to what is truly going on here, the paranoia and hysteria creeping upon each of the unsuspecting cast members. While it may not be able to create absolute terror, it still manages to consistently portray a tense atmosphere that makes it quite a compelling watch. That is something most modern horror films lack, atmosphere. The ability to not only be scary through cheap thrills, but through the skill of the craft. House on Haunted Hill truly goes to show you why Vincent Price is still considered one of the best in the classic horror business.
So have you ever watched a Vincent Price film? What is your favourite one if you have? If you have another Vincent Price film to recommend I am always excited to see more. Leave it all in the comments below and have yourself a great day!