After a rough week I decided I needed a break for all the modern gore and guts and decided to turn to a campy favorite I hadn’t seen in a while. William Castle was maybe known more for his gimmicks to pack theaters than the quality of his films, but that doesn’t stop House on Haunted Hill from being a wicked little fun film. Featuring a wonderfully ham-fisted Vincent Price performance, the film is a lean, dirty little morality tale that works despite (or maybe because of) the strings attached to the ghouls and frights on display.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: Five strangers are invited to a party at the titular house, the offer extended by eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren. The party turns out to be more of a game: simply manage to stay the entire night, and walk away with $10,000. Each of the partygoers has a reason for needing the cash, but things aren’t so simple when lights start to flicker and eerie apparitions appear. Is the house haunted, as spooked owner Watson Pritchard claims? Or is something more nefarious at hand? Maybe even…MURDER?!
Admittedly 9/10ths of the fun is watching Vincent Price as Frederick Loren pull the strings of both the guests and the audience as the story takes its turns from horror to something more grounded. And I’m always game whenever Elisha Cook shows up in a film, especially when he’s as unhinged as he is playing the freaked out owner of the house, convinced that the spirits lurking can come for anyone next…maybe even YOU!
But simply laughing at the antics of the acting doesn’t pay justice to how fun the script, credited to Robb White is, nor how effective Castle directs the action. Put aside the budgetary constraints and House on Haunted Hill becomes something of a marvel of tone and mood. Things become more and more freaky and we’re left with the cast to figure out what the hell is going on: is the house actually haunted? is something else happening? And if so, who is behind it?
I like that the film plays fair and doesn’t really reveal what is happening until the end, and when you do get the bigger picture Castle and co. ramp it up another notch or two for something even more wacky. House on Haunted Hill is a better picture than its reputation may suggest, and whether you check it out streaming (it’s currently on both Shudder and Amazon Prime) or if you own it (three cheers for the excellent 3-volume Vincent Price Collection released by Shout Factory) I heartily recommend checking it out for some good good fun.