Producer/director William Castle was part film maker and part carnival barker, being famous for gimmicks such as placing nurses in theater lobbies ostensibly to aid any viewers who were overcome with fright, wiring seats to give mild shocks when a monstrous “Tingler” came on the screen, and, for this week’s film, pioneering “Emergo” technology which released a skeleton on a wire to sail over the audience. In 1959, he made what I consider his best film as a director: House on Haunted Hill.
Set at the historic Ennis House in Los Angeles, the film’s agreeably silly plot features menacing millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who has offered a disparate cast of characters $10,000 to spend one night surrounded by ghosties and ghoulies. The event is allegedly a party for his current, faithless, wife Annabelle (Carol Ohlmart), who herself fears sharing the fate of her mysteriously deceased predecessors. The guests are a mousy secretary in Loren’s company (Carolyn Craig), a handsome test pilot (Richard Long), a stuffy psychiatrist (Alan Marshal), a money-hungry newspaper columnist (Ruth Bridgers) and the alcoholic survivor of some of the people who have been murdered in the house (Elisha Cook Jr.). The closing credits also include another cast member, in typical Castle tongue-in-cheek style: a skeleton appearing as “himself”.
I first saw this film on television when I was about 5 years old, and it gave me nightmares for months. I could not appreciate then what I can now, namely that Castle always served his horror with side dishes of corn and ham. There are certainly creepy moments and shocks in the film, but there is also campy fun, much of it courtesy of old hands Price and Cook. It’s also progressively amusing over the course of the film that the majority of Carolyn Craig’s dialogue becomes “Eeeeeeeekkkk!!!!!!!”.
House on Haunted Hill is spooky fun in the best Castle tradition. I recommend it for strong entertainment value and as the high point of the movies Castle made himself.
I say “by himself” because Castle was later associated with one of the greatest horror films in Hollywood history, albeit with an assist. Not long before he died, Castle purchased the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and brought the project to Robert Evans at Paramount. Evans wisely agreed to let Castle produce the film only if Roman Polanski helmed the project, and a classic film was born.
p.s. In case you are wondering, here is the fun-loving Castle’s “Emergo” gimmick in action.