HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, written by Robb White, directed by William Castle in 1959, made for just $200,000, managed to lure enough teens and kids into theaters to return $4,300,000, 61st place that year. Subsequent showings on the boob tube during the 60s snared new victims.
“I am Frederick Loren, and I have rented the house on Haunted Hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. She’s so amusing. There’ll be food and drink and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I will give you each ten thousand dollars, or your next of kin in case you don’t survive. Ah, but here come our other guests.”
Debonair in the deranged way of eccentric millionaires who host occasional stay-alive-prize parties for strangers in a ritzy house basement-equipped with an acid vat, ‘Frederic Loren’ (Vincent Price) and ‘Annabelle’ (Carol Ohmart) his unloving 4th wife—#’s1-3 gone M.I.A.— invite five test cases to survive the night in their vault-locked pad for $10,000. Subject contestants are wry test pilot ‘Lance Schroeder’ (Richard Long), guileless secretary ‘Nora Manning’ (Carolyn Craig), psychiatrist ‘David Trent’ (Alan Marshal), gossip columnist ‘Ruth Bridges’ (Julie Mitchum, sister of Robert) and pre-weirded-out ‘Watson Pritchard’ (Elisha Cook) who actually owns the supposedly spooked residence—Loren’s just renting it for the night.
“What’s the use of saying, “Good night”?”
Apart from one good scare with a crazy-looking old woman (played by Leona Anderson, 74), the suspense and fright factor is pretty tame. Even within the parameters of the genre things make little possible sense and the stagy schtick depends on the actors to keep the panic patter reasonably amusing. They do so during an inordinate amount of walking back & forth between rooms. Price is his usual smooth dispenser of veiled sarcasm, Long plays it cool, and Cook is as odd as ever. Carolyn Craig’s copious screams are shrill enough to raise the undead. Granted that the character names come straight out of the catalogue for “Types, 101”, ask yourself if you would be hard enough for dough to trust a decadent rich guy named ‘Frederic Loren’? Gotta love it when ‘Dr. David Trent’, after ‘Nora Manning’ has an explosion of shrieks that could be heard in Oregon, offers “Nora, I think you’re a little upset. Would you care for a sedative?” 75 minutes.
* The home used (the exteriors anyway) is the Ennis House, located in the L.A. enclave of Los Feliz, California. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright creation he designed in 1924. Naturally, the moviemakers gave it a bizarre interior.
In some theaters equipped for it, Castle, who co-produced with writer White, used a promo gimmick he called “Emergo”, where pulleys dragged plastic skeleton to rattle over the audience at a key point. Robb White collaborated with Castle on five popular fright flicks (Macabre, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, The Tingler), but beyond that was a real-life adventurer, a prolific author of novels (24) and had served with distinction in WW2.
The Boomer-nostalgia curio was remade in 1999, with a sizable budget, fancy effects and some decent actors (Geoffrey Rush among them), but it misses the goofball charm that distinguishes the price-conscious Vincent version. How can you top Vincent offering his guests miniature caskets containing .45 pistols?