House on Haunted Hill (1959): A Classic That Could Have Been Good


We continue the Halloween theme with movies in the lead up to Halloween with the original “House on Haunted Hill.” There was a later remake and sequel to the remake that I have no desire to see, given their bad reviews and the fact that I didn’t love this film. It had a lot of interesting ideas but the characters couldn’t carry it. I’ll get into what I mean in the assessment.

The film was directed by William Castle who was also one of the producers. It was written by Robb White who was also one of the other producers. This was their project.

The premise is an eccentric millionaire named Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who invites a group of people over to the haunted house for a party he did for his fourth wife where each will get ten thousand dollars if they can survive or stay until the morning. As everyone arrives we learn about past people who have died at the house as people are haunted and plots are hatched to use the people in the house by the millionaire and his wife and the visitors.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Frederick Loren – The fact that he’s played by Vincent Price makes him interesting, as we learn over the course of the film he’s insane and did this all as a plot to reveal his wife and her lover knowing they’d try to kill him. He wins and we see that though there are supernatural elements a lot of it is just human characters, like him playing giant puppets to make them seem real. I wish it had just been this and there hadn’t been spirits as it would have shown that the human were  the only monsters that were to be worried about. Still, Price is a great actor and he does a great job.

Annabelle Loren – His wife is just like him and they both hate and want to kill each other. She nearly wins when she fakes her own suicide and her lover the psychiatrist almost succeeds in manipulating one of the other visitors to kill Frederick. Carol Ohmart plays the calm collected role. I wish we could have seen why she loved the psychiatrist though, her reasons for hating her husband were understandably legion, but not her love for her lover.

The Haunted House – The Haunted House looks fantastic and has all the classic elements. From the ghostly groundskeepers, to heads in closets and an organ that plays on it’s own…as well as a cellar full of acid where the psychiatrist and Annabelle die. We get glimpses of other monsters too and the talk of all the murders and deaths add a sense of foreboding about the house, truly making it feel haunted.

Cinematography – The use of lighting and shadows is done really well in this film. From hands reaching around the sides of walls and hanging corpses with blank eyes…everything is just in the shadows giving it the feel of a haunting. Carl E. Guthrie did a great job.

Okay: Generic Visitors – The other four people are tropes and never get beyond that…we have the pilot who is the hero but needs to be saved, the newspaper columnist who is always drinking, the have the damsel in distress who gets used by the Psychiatrist, the millionaire and the wife, and we have the owner of the house who believes in the ghosts so is always haunting and on edge. None of them get beyond their roles and we never learn fully why they came for the money. This is where it being like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians falls apart as in that story the motivations were fully realized. This lack of motivation just hurt the plot.

The Cons: Extended Twilight Zone Episode – From the narration at the beginning of the owner of the house and the millionaire setting the scene between human versus supernatural manipulation this felt like a Twilight Zone episode that is just long. This would be a plus if this had been made for television, but this was a feature length film, so I have to count it against it. Unrealized potential is a good way to describe this film.

Mystery Unsolved – Why is the house haunted? What supernatural creatures are there and why? Why do the characters want the money being offered? These plot holes become apparent as scares are presented since we see that the characters would need good reasons to stay…and the monsters need motivation too, even if it is just something simple. This was a major con that took a way from a classic that could have been great or even good.

I would say check out this movie if you like Vincent Price and want to see some old classic horror films. I didn’t hate this film and like some things about it, it just couldn’t carry itself all the way through. This movie’s plot holes become more obvious as the plot progresses and the reveal of the wife as a major manipulator doesn’t feel as strong because we don’t get why she loves the psychiatrist. I said this in the assessment and I’ll say it again, this movie was unrealized potential.

Final Score: 6.7 / 10. It was enjoyably okay.


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