Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
William Castle didn’t have the same sort of budgets, ambitions, or technical abilities with which the likes of Alfred Hitchcock could astonish and terrify paying audiences with movie after movie.
But what did William Castle have?
Gimmicks. Soooooo many gimmicks.
For The Tingler, Castle rigged theater seats to buzz and, well, tingle audience members during a scene where the eponymous fear-eating monster snuck into a movie theater. For Homicidal, the film was promoted with a “Fright Break”, a 45-second window leading up to the film’s climax during which cowards unable to handle the thrill and chills could leave the theater and get a full refund. For 13 Ghosts, a unique form of 3D, dubbed “Illusion-O”, was trotted out that allegedly made the ghosts all the more vivid.
But perhaps Castle’s masterpiece of tawdry-but-you-gotta-love-it gimmickry was House on Haunted Hill (not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House). The film was promoted as using “Emergo”, which amounted to theaters being set up with pulley systems so during Haunted Hill’s climax, in which Carol Ohmart comes face-to-skull with a vengeful skeleton, a prop skeleton complete with glowing red eyes would fly over the audience.
Divorced from these theatrics, House on Haunted Hill is beloved as a precursor to the slasher genre and as the film that cemented Vincent Price as a gleefully ghoulish horror lead (Price had already starred in House of Wax, but that was something of a false start. After this film he began working with Roger Corman, at which point for better or worse he was locked in for life).
House on Haunted Hill stars Price as eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren who invites a group of complete strangers to join him at a party for his hateful wife Annabelle (Ohmart). The ‘party’ is to be held at what is reputed to be the most haunted house in the world, with the guests each $10,000 each…if they survive the night. Not all of them will.
House on Haunted Hill was a huge success, especially given its tiny budget. How much of that success was down to kids going over and over again so they could throw shit at the plastic skeleton as it went overhead is anyone’s guess. No less than Alfred Hitchcock took note of Haunted Hill’s profits, leading him to devise his own low-budget shocker, sprinkled with some attention-grabbing gimmicks.
That movie? Psycho.
But we’re not here to talk about that movie! We’re here to enjoy perhaps the deadliest game of trick or treat ever captured on film. So lock the gates and stand back from the windows, because here we go.
Next Week’s Pick:
Who could be so arrogant as to presume to remake Night of the Living Dead, the film that invented what we now understand to be the zombie genre, a landmark work of not only horror but of American independent cinema? What lousy hack would DARE tread upon such sacred ground.
Well, it turns out no one actually got paid for the original Night of the Living Dead despite all its success, so George A. Romero decided to supervise a remake of his own movie and actually make a dime or two out of the deal.
Night of the Living Dead ’90 is available to stream on Hulu.
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!
House on Haunted Hill isn’t especially scary, even by the standards of its time, but it is a lot of fun. The story is a bit of a mashup of Agatha Christie and an “old dark house” story, elevated by its cast — especially Elisha Cook and Vincent Price. Price in particular knows exactly what kind of movie this is, and brilliantly walks the line between horror and camp. The result is a near-constant level of dry wit that always stops just short of winking at the audience or spoiling the spooky atmosphere. In other words, Price makes it clear that he is having fun without being funny about it. It is also less gimmicky than William Castle’s subsequent horror films, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts, although I’d love to see it in a theater equipped with “Emergo.” House on Haunted Hill is the cinematic equivalent of a carnival spook house, and on that level it is a perfect counterpoint to the harder-edged staples of the Halloween season.
Verdict: TREAT (@T_Lawson)
Beauty lying in simplicity sums up what works about House on Haunted Hill. From the moment we first see Frederick and Annabelle Loren together with their loathing clear as crystal, the question becomes less whether the house is truly haunted than which one of them makes it to the end. (Though I will admit there was a portion of my own viewing that was framed more by the former question than the latter.) Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart portray the couple’s open disdain for each other with fantastic conviction; both playing contemptible characters behaving horribly towards each other even before murder comes into play.
In contrast to these two cold characters, House on Haunted Hill left me in a warm mood. Maybe it brought back cheerful memories of playing murder mystery games at parties or the charm of Price is just that effective. This movie made me happy.
Though it’d be hard not to be cheered up by any movie that has the credit “Skeleton as Himself.”
Verdict: TREAT (@WC_Wit)
When I think of spooky I think of House on Haunted Hill. it’s a movie based on unease, on having you questioning everything at every second. Is this place really haunted? Are they just playing a game? Is there really a murderer? Can they trust each other?
Despite having watched it multiple times, I still find myself exploring every option until the film clicks into place and (mostly) reveals the game. It’s all a bit of fun, and isn’t dissimilar from a fun haunted house.
There are two huge components in making all of this work. The first is Ennis House, which is so otherworldly and mysterious that it feels like it’s hiding secrets. The house looks like a character, with Frank Lloyd Wright taking much of the credit there.
The second is Vincent Price, who once again relishes every word coming out of his mouth. He embodies the same spooky fun that the movie does, and he’s the gear that makes everything tick. He underlines every scene, accentuates every twist and makes this a wonderfully spooky treat.
Verdict: TREAT (@hsumra)
This is the perfect Halloween movie. Halloween, after all, is a time for sharing spooky stories and fun/mean pranks and the giddy barbed joy of scaring someone/getting scared. What could be more perfect for the season than a movie about various people combining old-timey flim-flam with Grade-A ghost stories to try and scare each other to death? Price is the perfect avatar for this tone, playing things completely serious but unable to keep that macabre delight out of his delivery as he chews on every overwrought speech.
House on Haunted Hill is ludicrous and silly even for its genre/era/budget-range, but the central And Then There Were None hook is a solid enough super-structure onto which Castle can hang every sort of scare scene that comes to mind even if the film plays so fast and loose that it can’t really satisfy as a genuine mystery. But any time things seem to be slowing down, Castle trots out Elisha Cook Jr. to stare into the lens and pontificate on the unholy evil that is assuredly coming to kill them all, and that’s worth the price of admission right there.
Verdict: TREAT (@TheTrueBrendanF)
It’s been quite awhile since I’d seen this film, and I didn’t remember much more than the skeleton rising out of the vat at the climax, so this was almost like going in fresh — save that I’ve since seen the zany remake a couple times.
Vincent Price is clearly the top draw for this charmingly spooky murder mystery, delightfully serving up every line deliver with wit, charm, and a dash of poison — giving the picture the elevated playfulness that it needs, without ever actually hamming it up.
Add to that the legendary sadsack character actor Elisha Cook serving as a sort of Greek chorus to the film’s events as both participant and narrator, and the result is a gleeful spook-filled haunted house tale with two of the era’s most familiar faces.
Verdict: TREAT (@VforVashaw)
Next week’s pick: