Gimmick king William Castle’s best and most famous film is also the ultimate showcase for horror legend Vincent Price. Price steals the show as Frederick Loren, a thoroughly charming and gleefully sinister eccentric millionaire who invites five strangers to spend the night in a “haunted” house with himself and his vampish wife Annabelle, with the promise that everyone who survives until morning will receive $10,000. On the outside, the house is a blocky, modern affair, but inside it is vintage ghost digs, complete with secret doors, dark corridors and even a vat of acid in the wine cellar. Once the caretakers leave for the evening, the house is locked down tight and no one else can leave, meaning they are at the mercy of the malevolent force – man or monster? – lurking in the shadows.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a delightfully macabre affair that revels in its morbidity. In one scene, a guest who has a history with the house and believes it genuinely haunted (played with zeal by Elisha Cook, Jr.) tests the contents of the acid vat by pitching in a dead rat from a rat trap. In another memorable moment, Loren gives everyone very special party favors – loaded .45 automatics, stored in a row of miniature coffins. The “ghosts” in the house immediately target the most innocent and wholesome of the partygoers, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), and the trials she is put through – everything from being accosted by the haggard, blind caretaker to finding a severed head in her suitcase – border on misogyny. This tongue-in-cheek, E.C. Comics sensibility makes this one of the most perversely enjoyable fright films ever made, one that is just as much fun to watch a second, third or forty-third time, even when you already know the climactic twist.
The true brilliance of HOUSE, though, is that it isn’t really a haunted house film at all. While the supernatural elements are present (from organs that play by themselves to shrouded phantoms floating outside the window), the suspense in the film is derived from the suspicion that someone is using the party as a cover to commit murder. None of the guests know or trust Loren, and he and his wife can barely conceal their contempt for one another. Alliances are formed, suspicions are raised, and the tension is palpable in every scene from the moment the guests set foot in the house. Is Price a madman bent on killing one or all of his housemates, or has Mrs. Loren arranged the party as a way to rid herself of her husband and get her hands on his wealth? Cook’s Watson Pritchard keeps warning of terrors from beyond the grave, and Craig’s Nora is tormented by sights and sounds that seem otherworldly, but the audience is always aware that the most dangerous thing stalking the halls of this haunted mansion is good, old-fashioned murderous greed.
The cast has a ball with Robb White’s razor sharp script (Price and Carol Ohmart are particularly good when trading venomous banter with one another), and the film is masterfully directed by Castle himself and beautifully photographed by Carl Guthrie. Produced on a B-budget, HOUSE has the look of an A-list film, each shot remarkably well-staged and the visual effects simple but effective. Even the famous walking skeleton, which might be downright laughable in a lesser film, works perfectly in its unforgettable scene. Because this film is in the public domain, there are inferior prints available on home video, but a good, letterboxed copy is not hard to find and is well worth the search. Anyone who believes that Castle’s only cinematic skill lay in his promotional strategies would do well to study his craftsmanship on HOUSE. Shot composition, editing and pacing are all first-rate.
Vincent Price is an actor who, no matter how bad the film, never gave a bad performance. His portrayal of Frederick Loren might be the best performance of his career. It’s a great credit to William Castle and the rest of the cast and crew that Mr. Price’s scene-stealing showing is just one of many, many reasons to recommend HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.