Friday, September 10, 2010

Fright Flix presents the House on Haunted Hill (1959)!

House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Directed by William Castle. Starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long.

The first time I watched The House on Haunted Hill I was impressed. It was creepy and captivating, Vincent Price was brilliant and the atmosphere and story-line were completely immersive. However I was only about 8 years old the first time that I watched it and now when I view it with more mature eyes and a brain that has been desensitized by big studio CGI movies and 3D blockbusters it comes across as simple and cheesey. 
The flimsy plot has Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) inviting five guests to spend the night with him and his wife in the notorious house. If they survive, each guest will receive ten thousand dollars for their unwitting part in his cat and mouse game to do away with his adulterous wife. The cheerless Loren, along with the cheerless Pritchard, greet everyone amid the cobwebs. Loren carefully chose each guest--they all need the money badly--and chauffeured them to the house in cheerless hearses. His droll sense of humor continues when he hands out the party favors: handguns, neatly packaged in mini-coffins.
Before you can say "cheese dip anyone?" Pritchard leads them on a murder-highlights tour of the house, ending with the vat of acid in the cellar for his show-stopper. "You mean that's still filled with...?" asks one astonished guest. He picks up a dead rat, tosses it in, and in a few roiling seconds up comes the bony white skeleton picked clean. No one wanted cheese dip after that. With all these gimmicks and props in place the madness ensures soon there after.
While the 1940s had Universal's iconic Monsters and RKO's Val Lewton and Jacque Tourneur, the 1950s had William Castle's spook show entertainment. For the price of your ticket you were guaranteed to receive thrills and chills not only on the theater screen, but in the aisles as well. Realizing his B-movies--usually written for a younger audience--needed a little something extra to generate buzz, Castle ramped up the marketing hype by using lurid trailers, tawdry poster art, and clever--even if silly--gimmicks to hawk his films. Like that wonderful prize you can't wait to get to in a Cracker Jack Box, Castle's gimmicks were always simple and sweet in effect, and perfect for the Saturday matinée crowd. Whether it was the insurance policy handed out during Macabre, or Percepto tingling your butt in The Tingler, or squinting through Illusion-O to see all Thirteen Ghosts, you always got your money's worth. While he didn't quite scare the pants off America with his theatrics, he did put a few wrinkles in them for many horror fans.
Vincent Price, a personal favorite of mine, had already proven his mettle at playing a smarmy, sinister sophisticate (The Mad Magician, House of Wax, and Richelieu in The Three Musketeers), so the role of Loren was right up his dark alley as Castle shrewdly knew. Price's star presence would give the movie a touch of class plus a brooding malevolence that would bolster ticket sales to the young audience members making up the majority of theater-goers in the 50s. With adults staying home to watch the new novelty of the small screen, kids and teenagers ventured forth in record numbers to have a good old corny time in front of the big one. And with the major studios cutting back on A-movie, and especially B-movie production, and their studio system of star-grooming and film distribution in tatters, the era of carnivalesque promotion and independent stars had begun.
Gimmickmeister Castle ate it all up like a kid eagerly scarfing down popcorn, Milk Duds and Chuckles in one mouthful, but he did take film distribution seriously: his melodramatic send-ups of spook show horror clichés, done in remarkable shadings of darkness and light, accompanied by shrill screams and throaty groans, were family-friendly terrors Joey and Janey could enjoy while their older siblings smooched in the back rows with their boyfriends and girlfriends. The film's haunted-house-ride styled opening, with the screen staying dark as a piercing scream rips through the theater, followed by moaning and chains clanking, was astutely tailored for those smoochers.
"There's a house on Haunted Hill
Where ev'rything's lonely and still
Lonely and still
And the ghost of a sigh
When we whispered good-bye
Lingers on
And each night gives a heart broken cry
There's a house on Haunted Hill
Where love walked there's a strange silent chill
Strange silent chill
There are mem'ries that yearn
For our hearts to return
And a promise we failed to fulfill
But we'll never go back 
No, we'll never go back
To the house on Haunted Hill!"

I hope you will go back to House on Haunted Hill. It wouldn't be too hard to hook up an Emergo gimmick yourself. Just make sure to have lots of popcorn and don't forget the cheese dip and handguns!

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