31 Films of Halloween – 10/6/15: House on Haunted Hill

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: House on Haunted Hill.

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House on Haunted Hill, 1959

Let’s call it a Vincent Price double feature.

Yesterday’s film was the 1959 Price guilty pleasure The Bat. Today’s film is the 1959 Price guilty pleasure House on Haunted Hill. Turns out that 1959 was a pretty fun, campy year for Vincent Price.

Directed by master of movie gimmicks William Castle, House on Haunted Hill takes place over the course of a single night in a (maybe, maybe not) haunted mansion. Price’s eccentric millionaire, Frederick Loren, has invited a group of not-so-random strangers to attend a haunted birthday party for his estranged wife. “There’ll be food and drink and ghosts,” Price explains in the film’s prologue, “and perhaps even a few murders.” The catch? Any guest who stays the whole night in the house—and manages to stay alive in the process—gets $10,000. If someone leaves or dies, the remaining guests who make it through the night will split their share.

At the core of House on Haunted Hill is the dysfunctional relationship between Price’s Loren and his wife, Annabelle (played by Carol Ohmart). Both are convinced that the other is a murderer, and ultimately—in their own way—both are proved right. The chemistry between Price and Ohmart is outstanding. You can practically taste the venom each spits at the other in their far too few scenes together. Most of their screen time together is talky exposition, but it never drags and is always wickedly delicious.

For all its camp and clichés, House on Haunted Hill really is a surprisingly effective little horror film. With plenty of creepy atmosphere, a twisty plot, and some genuine scares, Castle’s film succeeds as a pure genre film and ranks among Price’s top performances.

For the record, and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the 1999 House on Haunted Hill remake gets a bit of a bad rap and is actually an effective horror film in its own right. Forty years later the stakes went up from $10,000 per guest to a cool million per, and the special effects were taken up a few notches, as you might expect. In the lead role, Geoffrey Rush spends much of the film doing his best Vincent Price impersonation, which is actually more fun than it may sound.

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But while the 1999 version is far more violent and bloody than the 1959 version, it also features some creatively unsettling imagery that elevates it above some of its same-generation cinematic peers. The nightmarish visuals—including a terrifically effective ghost surgery featuring a cameo by Jeffrey Combs—are outstanding.

For the purists, though, you simply can’t beat Vincent Price and William Castle, so make House on Haunted Hill 1959 a Halloween season treat.

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