The House on Haunted Hill was one of William Castle’s first big hits and it set the tone for much of what was to follow. The plot is nothing special but with Vincent Price in top form and a strong supporting cast it’s all great fun. And it featured one of Castle’s best-known gimmicks - Emergo (a plastic skeleton which menaced the audience from above during the scary scenes).
Price plays an eccentric millionaire named Frederick Loren who rents a supposedly haunted house for the weekend. The owner of the house, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), has only spent one night in the house. He is convinced that it is haunted and that the ghosts were responsible for the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law.
Loren has chosen five people to invite to a party at the house. He has offered each of them $10,000 if they stay till morning. His guests have been picked because they all need the money badly and the party promises to be deliciously cruel fun from Loren’s viewpoint.
The five are test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), a secretary at Loren’s company named Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), socialite Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr David Trent and Watson Pritchard. All are desperate enough to accept the offer.
The house is almost a prison. All the windows are barred and once the caretakers leave the house is locked from the outside and no-one can leave until they return in the morning. And there is no telephone.
So it’s another variation on the Old Dark House theme. Loren is hoping his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) will enjoy the party as it will give her a break from her usual occupation of trying to think up ways to murder him. Loren’s insane jealousy and Annabelle’s greed has made this marriage more than a little tense.
To add to the tensions of having a group of unstable personalities (if the guests were in any way stable they would not provide Loren with the kind of fun he is hoping for) all spending the night in a house with a formidable reputation for murders each guest is provided with a gun. With any luck they’ll soon all be so spooked they’ll be taking potshots at one another. It’s a dangerous party game and it may well prove to be hazardous for the host as well.
It doesn’t take long before the guests start cracking up. Watson Pritchard was ready to crack up as soon as he arrived and he’s holding himself together with copious quantities of alcohol.
Price is in fine form. The role gives him the opportunity to ham it up quite outrageously and he obliges. Elisha Cook Jr shows that he can slice the ham just as thickly as Price can and these two over-the-top performances provide much of the fun. The other players provide capable support with Carolyn Craig taking every opportunity to demonstrate advanced states of hysteria.
The house itself is one of the stars of the movie. The Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1924, was used for exterior shots of the haunted house. The Ennis House was influenced by Mayan architecture and has been featured in countless movies and TV series. The interior sets used in the movie unfortunately don’t really fit the feel of the house itself.
Castle throws every cinematic gimmick he can think of into this concoction, including a cellar provided with an acid bath - one false step and you’re reduced to a skeleton.
The Warner Home Video DVD release includes both a fullframe and a widescreen version of the film. The widescreen version is 16x9 enhanced and looks splendid. There have been countless DVD releases of this movie, many of them very inferior, so it pays to do some research before buying a copy.
The House on Haunted Hill is pure entertainment and fans of Vincent Price and/or William Castle won’t want to miss this one. Highly recommended.