Without seeing it. I’d always dismissed 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill as a duller-witted cousin of its relative contemporary, 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise and based on Shirley Jackson’s excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House. And while The Haunting is more psychologically rich, and has some moments of terror that Haunted Hill can’t match -- that pounding on the door! -- I finally caught the William Castle-directed movie last weekend for Halloween. I shouldn’t have written it off, because man, it’s a pip.
Vincent Price is Frederick Loren, a millionaire who, along with his wife, played by Carol Ohmart, has invited five strangers to spend the night at a haunted house, with the potential of earning a substantial sum of money. One of the strangers is Elisha Cook’s Pritchard, who has a family history with the house, and walks in terrified. The others -- a secretary at Loren’s company, a pilot, a gossip columnist, a doctor -- all have reasons for needing a lot of money, quickly. And at once point they’re told that there’s a lump sum of money that the survivors of the night will split, giving them a reason to off each other.
And then Vincent Price hands everyone a loaded handgun.
What’s so much fun about The House on Haunted Hill is that there are so many reasons these characters should be fearing for their lives, even without the intervention of the supernatural. The guests have a financial motive for murder. The married hosts, while preparing for the party, have also told each other in no uncertain terms that they’d like to see the other dead. And there’s a vat of deadly acid in the basement! Pritchard (Elisha Cook is so good in this!) tells everyone, almost mesmerized by the morbidity, “It completely dissolves flesh and hair.” A little rat skeleton floats to the bubbling surface.
And then, of course, there are the hauntings themselves. A ceiling drips blood. An old woman appears out of nowhere. A character who has died is later seen floating outside one of the guests’ window. Decapitated heads appear in the darnedest places. Are these plants meant to scare the rubes, or are they genuine supernatural manifestations? Could be column A, could be column B -- the movie plays this close to the vest for the longest time. But with all the backstabbing and suspicion from the living, ghosts are just gilding the funeral lillies.