When the calendar page turns to October, we Rejects have only one thought: horror. To celebrate this grandest and darkest of months, we’ll cover one excellent horror film a day for the entirety of the month. That’s 31 Days of Horror and 31 Films perfect for viewing on a dark, chilly, October night. If you, like us, love horror and Halloween, give us a Hell Yeah and keep coming every day this month for a new dose of adrenaline.
The sardonic millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) is throwing a party for his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), but this isn’t just any party. He’s invited five strangers into an ancient mansion with a troubled past, a ton of ghosts, and a few people bent on murder. Whoever survives the night gets $10,000 and their life to take home with them.
There are several fantastic moments, but the climactic scare comes when a skeleton rises from a ground-level vat of acid to shock the true villain of the story. In theaters, director and showman William Castle installed boxes where a skeleton would emerge and fly over the crowd during the scene (which was probably effective until young boys started bringing slingshots to theaters and the whole gimmick was scrapped).
Being dropped into a vat of acid, and a good old fashioned gunshot to the gut top the list which includes the self-violence of a suicide. If they were done today with more money, they would probably be excruciating and deserve far more than two skulls, but the bodily harm of 1959 works pitch-perfectly for this movie.
Compared to modern flicks, this one is pretty tame, but Ohmart walks around a lot in evening dresses that look like they were designed by lingerie manufacturers. Plus, that damned handsome Vincent Price rocks that pencil thin mustache the whole time like a tease. Of course, if you’re into super old women who appear to float through the room doing their best frightened cat impression, this movie might just get you hot under the mental ward scrubs you’re forced to wear by court order.
The key to the movie’s success is Price’s deathly wit and a production design that provides no safe haven. It’s downright spooky, and that lull of unease creates the perfect opportunity for jump scares and slow burns alike. The best is definitely when the no-eyed old woman startles poor Nora (Carolyn Craig), and then flies out of the room to the sounds of screaming, but there are a ton of examples (13 at least, according to Castle).
1999 was an interesting year where this film and 1963’s The Haunting were remade for audiences in as mediocre a way as you might expect. Geoffrey Rush took over the Vincent Price role (and they even named the character after the iconic actor), but even though it was completely passable (whereas The Haunting was garbage), it struggled to deliver the same kind of atmosphere, and that made it cheap and uninteresting.
If anything, this film is proof that creating rooms that evoke terror is a difficult task that audiences will still dig into. That’s what makes this an absolute classic, and what makes its 1999 counterpart so forgettable.
Of course, in an odd twist, the true legacy of House on Haunted Hill is that its financial success and low budget sensibility inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make a low budget horror film of his own called Psycho.