Welcome back to Horror in Black and White! We had so much fun last week with William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, that I decided we just had to move onto the first of two collaborations between the famed director and Vincent Price: House on Haunted Hill!
Released in January, 1959, House on Haunted Hill starred Vincent Price as Frederick Loren, a man with a lot of money and fierce dislike of his (fourth) wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart).
The Lorens have rented out “the only really haunted house in the world” for a very special haunted house party with a carefully curated guest list who arrive in funeral cars following a hearse in procession to the House on Haunted Hill.
As the night progresses, the tension mounts and murder enuses…or does it? With a $10,000 prize on the line for staying the night, however, who wouldn’t try?
For those of you wondering, $10,000 in 1959 would be equal to about $86,000 today.
Much better than it ever should have been, the film had a bit of a casting coup when Castle managed to snag Price for his picture.
A story is told, apocryphally, that Castle met up with Price after he had just been passed over for a role. Castle saw his opportunity, explained what he was working on, and Price agreed to do Haunted Hill and The Tingler, which released later that same year.
Ohmart, as it turned out, was the perfect sparring partner for Price on screen. The two had an incredible chemistry, and her whiskey-voiced threats perfectly matched Price’s suave delivery.
Price and Ohmart aren’t the only standouts in this cast, however.
Julie Mitchum, older sister of Robert Mitchum, is fantastic as Ruth Bridgers. Her wry wit shines in every line, and even in tense moments, there’s a twinkle in her eye as though she’s having the time of her life.
Sadly, it was her final appearance on screen. She left the business after the film, though the two events were apparently unrelated.
Elisha Cook, Jr. also shines as the neurotic drunk, Watson Pritchard who owns the house, and who had lost more than a few family members to its darkness.
House on Haunted Hill really was one of Castle’s better projects mostly because he takes the time to develop mood and atmosphere in ways that were rare to the king of gimmicks, though he had to throw one or two in for good measure.
Who could ever forget Leona Anderson as the weirdo maid, Mrs. Slydes (get it?!) seemingly floating in and out of scenes, her face frozen in a grotesque mask? Or how about that walking Skeleton, who incidentally was listed in the credits as playing Himself!
Castle also set his audience up for terror with the opening scream and sound effects. It might not seem like much now, but in 1959, it terrified audiences and primed them for the film he had in store. It also started a craze for spooky sound effects records which people bought for their own haunted parties.
This is one of those films where the score is absolutely on point thanks to composer Von Dexter. From layered strings to wailing theremin, this score had it all, and it perfectly complements the action on screen.
House on Haunted Hill became one of Allied Artists hottest properties upon its release. The combined power of Price and Castle were box office gold, and it remains a cult classic to this day.
Oddly, however, the film fell into the public domain and there it has remained. which has worked for fans of the film. It is available on numerous streaming services for free!
If you’ve never seen this black and white classic, you’re definitely overdue, and if you have, it’s time you saw it again!
Check out the trailer below and join us again next week for another edition of Horror in Black and White!