William Castle is a classic horror director, but he’s not exactly Alfred Hitchcock. Whereas Hitchcock took films that could so easily fall flat and made them astoundingly brilliant, Castle was more of a mainstream gimmicky kind of director. This isn’t an insult, the man has done great stuff, some of it was just kind of stupid. His film The Tingler is a perfect example of this, although in that particular situation his gimmick got in the way of his storytelling big time. His films like The Old Dark House, 13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus are sillier films, but they’re still as entertaining as they were five decades ago. They’re popcorn horror films and more often then not Castle made them work. Does his 1959 haunted house film House on Haunted Hill also remain as entertaining? Well, let me put it this way, there’s a reason people still love this film 57 years later.
House on Haunted Hill follows Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) a millionaire in the middle of his fourth marriage, though it may not be the happiest one. Loren holds a party, but not a normal party, at this particular party he invites five strangers to spend a night with him and his wife at a supposedly haunted mansion. What do the party-goers get if they stay all night? Ten thousand dollars from Mr. Loren himself.
Although we may get the typical 50’s horror movie acting, with either very wooden delivery or over the top delivery, there’s some great character stuff here. As far as acting goes, Vincent Price is obviously your strongest player here, but luckily he really is enough to carry it. But even when he’s not onscreen, a lot of the characters themselves–although the acting may not be there–are far more interesting than I expected. This isn’t to say that all of the characters are interesting (I’ll get into that later) but the characters who are interesting here add a lot of intrigue to this story. The characters may not have dimension, but they do have hidden layers. You think you know everyone’s motivations, but you don’t really know. Characters like Frederick, Annabelle and Lance are all very interesting characters that make for a compelling mystery.
Another strong aspect to this film is the atmosphere. I love the atmosphere that this film creates because it’s prime 1950’s haunted house atmosphere. The movie isn’t exactly a whodunnit story, but for some reason it had that feel to me, which made it a lot of fun. There are a lot of back stabbings and twists, making for a classic mystery story. Is it cheesy and gimmicky like I mentioned? Sure, I’ll get more into that later–but it definitely is that. That being said, it makes for a very entertaining film. Something that’s aimed at mainstream audiences isn’t always necessarily bad. Can you always tell that it’s aimed to please a certain audience? Sure, but it works sometimes. This is one of those examples.
Something else that director William Castle is great at is imagery. Whether it be a genuinely creepy moment or just an effective dramatic shot, Castle proves with this film that he has an eye for effective photography. This movie is pretty cheesy in its horror imagery, but that’s mainly the third act. In fact, I think the first two-thirds have some pretty creepy moments. Moments like a woman dressed in black jumping out at someone is creepy, and even simple moments like a dead body hung from the ceiling, but instead of seeing the full body we only see the dangling legs. Stuff like that is really effective and memorable. Not just scares, but even basic moments like Vincent Price putting a gun in a coffin or the classic 50’s “dramatic glance”, or even someone just standing in a hallway for just the right amount of time to make it unsettling.
I like this movie, I think it’s aged very well, but there are some glaring issues here. A few paragraphs above, I mentioned some of the characters that I really liked, characters who had layers, but every single other character in this movie is a complete waste of space. I’ll be honest, sometimes they would cut to a character and I’d say “Fuck, I forgot they were even in this”. Some of these characters are annoyingly flat, most noticeably Watson (Elisha Cook) who is set up as someone who has a kind of history with the house, but they don’t do a fucking thing with that character. That character is so glaringly mishandled because they keep having him walk up to characters and babble senselessly, but that just goes nowhere. He’s not even a red herring, he has mild set up and then nothing.
Even for it’s time, this movie is silly. Like, it’s duuuuuumb. I didn’t mind it, because I find the movie fun, but the third act specifically is so much dumber than the first two-thirds. Some of the horror elements go to random places and although I like almost all of the twists in this, I’ll admit that some of those aspects don’t make sense. This movie may be almost six decades old, but I’ll refrain from spoilers. But there’s one particular twist that was one of those twists that made me go “But if this was this….then why did this happen? and so they….did that to get to this?”. Those are the aspects that are certainly aimed to shock the mainstream audiences that it was intended for in 1959, with no logic considered. They’re still fun twists, but they are very dumb. Even the scares get dumber, like a scene with a dancing skeleton and a scene with a random monster hand.
Sure, does this have its flaws? Absolutely. The third act goes to some silly places and a main chunk of the cast of characters are completely mishandled, but the fact that this movie is 57 years old and it was even slightly effective is pretty astounding to me. There’s camera work that’s still impressive and gorgeous today, scares and imagery that still creeped me out and had me on the edge of my seat, and the characters that do work, work really well. Plus, who doesn’t love a little Vincent Price every now and then? There’s a reason that this film is hailed as one of the great classic haunted house movies, because it is one of the great classic haunted house movies. This is the epitome of the 50’s era spook house film, and it’s just as fun now as it was back then, flaws and all.