Thursday, November 22, 2012

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)


Millionaire Frederick Loren (whom we will call Vincent Price, for lo, 'tis he) has a killer idea for a party. He'll invite 5 strangers--a pilot, a psychologist, a stenographer, a journalist, and the drunken, raving owner of the house, all of whom are strapped for cash--to join him and his wife at a haunted house he's rented just for the occasion. Anyone who stays the night will receive $10,000 (almost $80,000 today, if you adjust for inflation). Not too bad for a night's non-work. Of course, it's not so simple. The owner reveals that no fewer than 7 people have been murdered in that house, and it is these ghosts who now haunt the premises. When the caretaker and his creepy blind wife take off early, locking the guests--and hosts--in the house, they must find a way to survive until morning.

This. Movie. Is. Hilarious.

And rather unexpected. Like many of you, I expect haunted houses to look a particular way-- like this:

Not like this:

But indeed, this is the very house where our characters must earn their $10,000. (I thought it had a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to it, and was delighted to find that this is, in fact, one of his houses, built in 1924. Bonus points for me!) So right from the get go, this movie doesn't feel like a typical haunted house picture. After all, in 1959, the house was only about 25 years old--and it looks it.

Then, too, there are the casualties themselves. If haunted houses have a prototype, so too do the injuries they cause. So when a character is found hanging from a railing, that feels like a haunted house kind of tragedy. When characters freak out and attack each other with knives or guns, that makes sense. When disembodied heads show up in unexpected places, or dead people taunt the living, well, what do you expect? It's a haunted house! But when we learn that a previous tenant murdered his wife by submerging her in a giant vat of acid, well, that's more Batman than haunted house. I mean, who has a giant vat of acid, even in a haunted house? And how does one keep a vat of acid? Wouldn't it corrode the container?

An additional oddity: The movie doesn't end at dawn. It ends in the middle of the night. Sure, one mystery is solved and the danger seems to have been resolved, but the characters still have to survive until morning. Which seems like it should be pretty easy, except for the one character who is positive that the ghosts are coming for them--and then for us, the audience. It's such a bizarre, abrupt tag that I laughed out loud (though I did a lot of that during the rest of the movie as well).

Allow me to say that I love Vincent Price. He is delightful. The rest of the cast--with the exception of Elisha Cook, Jr., who I recognize from The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon--are all strangers to me. They earn their keep, though--Richard Long as the none-too-bright leading man type, Carolyn Craig as the terrified ingenue/damsel in distress, Elisha Cook, Jr. as the paranoid (or is he?) drunk, Alan Marshal as the skeptical doctor, Julie Mitchum as the (underutilized) no-nonsense journalist, and Carol Ohmart as the femme fatale hostess.

But the star here is Price. Well, Price and the giant vat of acid, which makes several appearances and never ceased to entertain me. And there is also a deliciously improbable performance by a skeleton which I will not spoil for you, but which you simply must see.

If you enjoy the so-bad-it's-good-but-also-kinda-legitimately-good genre of classic horror films, you should absolutely check this out bundle of creepy, campy fun.

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