House on Haunted Hill (1959) – A Horror Movie Review

Halloween has come and gone but I would like to add a few more movies to the list and maybe finish off with some kind of summation.

The date (1959) is inserted in the post title to differentiate this film from the 1999 remake.  I actually paid money to see the remake in a theater and still consider it one of the worst judgement calls of my rather checkered movie viewing career.  It’s right up there with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Ah well.

The 1959 original is a masterpiece of cheesy 1950s horror film goodness.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a millionaire, Vincent Price, and his wife who invite three men and two women who are only casually familiar with the hosts, to stay overnight locked in a haunted mansion.  That total of four men and three women matches the number of men and women murdered in the haunted house and therefore the number of ghosts haunting it.  Got it? Good.  If they stay, they each win $10,000.  If they die, they get $50,000 or at least their beneficiaries do.  The building is locked completely and until the next morning no one can leave.

Although Vincent Price stars in this gem and brings to bear all of his formidable overacting ability I would say that the star of the film is the screams produced by the two main female characters in the movie.  The piercing quality and protracted duration of the various screaming jags is remarkable.  Especially considering the low body count of the action.  These gals will start singing at the drop of a hat or at least at the drop of a severed head.

In second place in terms of importance to the atmosphere of the film is Watson Pritchard, the character played by actor Elisha Cook Jr.  You may know Cook from his notable roles in such high-profile films as the Maltese Falcon and the Big Sleep where he interacted with the likes of Humphrey Bogart.  But this is not the Maltese Falcon.  This not even the Maltese Bippy.  In House on Haunted Hill he is interacting with actors of the caliber of Vincent Price, at best.  Pritchard is a morose alcoholic survivor of a previous ghost attack whose brother is one of the ghosts haunting the house.  His main function is to drink booze and tell the participants in a droning, despondent voice, that they are all doomed and soon to be themselves ghosts in the house forever.  In this role he is truly annoying and it is sort of beyond the suspension of disbelief to think that none of the other characters would beat him into silence.  In the most egregious occurrence of Pritchard’s pessimistic prognosticating, the male romantic lead, airline pilot Lance Schroeder, runs into a room holding a mummified woman’s severed head by its long dark hair and yells to Pritchard, “where’s Nora!”  Pritchard immediately proclaims, based on no evidence we’ve been given, that not only have the ghosts already killed Nora but that she’s already actively working as one of them to kill the rest of the living occupants of the house.  Then Nora walks into the room and Pritchard doesn’t even bat an eye but goes back to his drinking.  Apparently ghost listening is far from an exact science and his radar was slightly thrown off by the straight bourbon he was pouring down his throat at the time.

And Lance is the only other character played by an actor anyone has ever heard of.  He’s played with astonishing mediocrity by Richard Long whom you may or may not remember played “the Professor” in the forgettable 1970s tv series “Nanny and the Professor” with Haley Mills’ less talented but more attractive sister Juliet playing the role of “the Nanny.”  The rest of the actors on House on Haunted Hill probably ended up as extras on Gunsmoke, Bonanza and the Twilight Zone.  Some may even have lasted long enough to do a stint on “Love American Style.”  But I digress.

As host, Vincent Price distributes party favors (semi-automatic .45 caliber pistols) and a private bed room to each of his guests.  The guests form various alliances and attempt to protect themselves from harm but despite this, Vincent Price’s wife is quickly found hanged from the ceiling of the stairway.  It’s a really nice-looking braided rope.  This of course triggers an avalanche of shrieks from Nora.  Richard Long comforts her, which cements their romantic attraction and allows her to rest her tonsils for the next bout of screeching.  And that can only be a few minutes away.  Just to summarize, there are secret passageways, ceilings dripping with blood, vats below the floor filled with really, really, fast-acting acid, a blind hag that seems to slide along the floor as if being pulled along on roller skates, a ghostly apparition outside the window, a walking, talking skeleton and a self-propelled rope that can wind around women’s legs without any hand moving it.  There are another couple of characters that I haven’t described but honestly, they don’t have much to do.  There is a plot line that involves Vincent Price and his wife which actually explains a lot of the plot elements but knowing it doesn’t really add or detract much from entertainment value of the movie.  It’s a ridiculous horror movie and I enjoy it immensely on its own terms.  If you like bad 1950s horror movies then I recommend House on Haunted Hill as the pinnacle of the genre.  If you don’t like bad 1950s horror movies then I can’t help you and you’re probably a monster.