Horror Through the Decades: The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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Annabelle and skeleton in The House on Haunted Hill – via Allied Artists

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Everyone who has been invited to this “ghost party” is all gathered together in the parlor of this house on the hill. Their host is nowhere to be seen. Everyone is speculating why a person would do such a thing as just give away $10,000 to five strangers.

Mr. Loren is meanwhile in Mrs. Loren’s room, attempting to convince her to join the party, saying that it was her idea. The relationship between the two is fraught. Apparently Annabelle Loren had already attempted to poison her husband, and wishes badly that she could escape the marriage, but is too smart and cunning to leave all the money attached.

It doesn’t take too long after Mr. Loren introduces himself to the guests that things take a supernatural turn. Nora sees a ghost and Lance gets hit on the head by an unseen force. Everyone begins to panic. Watson Pritchard warns everyone that the ghosts of the house will take anyone away with them that they please.

There is a vat of acid in the wine cellar, that stayed from when an original tenant of the house decided to fill the wine vat with acid instead, and throw his wife into it. We are shown that the acid is in fact still there when Mr. Pritchard throws a dead rat in and all that floats back up is his skeleton.

The action keeps ramping up from here to a rather unexpected conclusion with a skeleton (starring as “Himself” in the credits) walking on its own…or is it? When the film was originally shown in theaters, William Castle designed a promotional gimmick (which he was the master of, by the way) called “Emergo” which would have a skeleton fly across the theater during this scene.

Vincent Price behind the scenes of House on Haunted Hill dancing with SKELETON – via Allied Artists

At the end of the movie, we find out that the house is haunted in a different way than what we originally believed, and that maybe Frederick Loren wasn’t as much of a villain as we thought. The twist at the end is something that still brings me great joy to this day, and in my opinion, the 1999 remake doesn’t really do this film much justice, and honestly has a completely different story arc. Please don’t consider these films to belong together, if anything the remake is simply inspired by the original and should be treated as its own extremely separate entity.

I love the cinematography in this film from DP Carl E. Guthrie, who captures a lot of the house’s subtleties despite filming in black & white, and creates a solidly unnerving atmosphere.

I also can’t conclude the article without mentioning the music. Von Dexter, who would go on to compose the score to William Castle films 13 Ghosts  and Doctor Sardonicus created the prototypical spooky movie soundtrack. With otherworldly moans and more theremin than you can shake a stick at, Von Dexter created the prototype for all horror films that followed it. He obviously has a huge influence on Danny Elfman and John Carpenter, among many others.

I can’t praise The House on Haunted Hill enough. It began William Castle’s legacy as a master of horror, and catapulted Vincent Price even further along his rise to superstardom. It’s also a film made so long ago that still manages to scare today. The female caretaker, Mrs. Slydes (Leona Anderson; AshesJohnny Gunman) will likely haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.

Mrs. Slydes is mistaken by Nora Manning for a ghost in The House on Haunted Hill – via Allied Artists

If you haven’t seen this classic film, I implore you once again, to give it a watch. If you haven’t seen it in a long time, give it a rewatch. It’s a film that still holds up and is in my opinion William Castle’s best offering.

Next. Five fangtastic vampire films to watch ASAP. dark

I’ll return next week with another in-depth examination of a classic ’50s horror film. Until then, I’m Lorry Kikta, and this has been the first edition of HORROR THROUGH THE DECADES.