Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Plunder Road

Some decades ago, after being up all night playing cards with a Papua-New Guinean family on their first train journey across America, I sat down in the observation car to watch the sun rise over the Utah Salt Flats. A tired-looking middle-aged woman sat down directly opposite me but looked away, as if she had just entered a confessional. She may have been a little drunk or a little hungover, and I may have been too.

“I was a vote counter under Ferdinand Marcos, so I had to flee The Philippines”, she wearily intoned.

Because we were alone in the car, this cryptic remark was clearly an invitation to me. I did not know her name, her background, her motives or even her veracity. But I didn’t need to know them either. She was offering to tell me a story, take it or leave it.

“Tell me about it”, I said.

An extraordinary, tortuous tale followed, commanding my complete attention for some lost amount of time. When she was done relating it, she left the car and I never saw her again. But I have thought about that interaction many times when analyzing movies because it illustrates something important: All an audience really needs is a good story. All the ponderous scripts, lax direction and flabby editing in movies that results in 20-30 tiresome minutes spent telling us about all the characters’ childhoods and marriages and personalities and little quirks before getting to the story can almost always be condensed or eliminated entirely if the filmmakers fundamentally have a good tale to tell. That lesson is beautifully illustrated by the criminally forgotten 1957 crime caper Plunder Road.

The films opens with the execution of what is clearly a meticulously planned robbery of a train carrying gold bars from the U.S. Mint. The four men who pull off the heist barely speak to each other so the audience knows almost nothing about them, not even their names. The audience’s sole insight into their characters comes from brief voice overs of each of their racing thoughts. The thieves move with precision despite the pitch-black night and unexpected driving rainstorm, escaping the scene of the crime and transferring their weighty loot into three separate trucks which they start driving south, hoping to elude a growing police cordon.

Comedy Horror/Suspense

House on Haunted Hill

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.