Saturday, October 24, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: House on Haunted Hill (1959 version)

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look. 

Warning:  Although the movies that I watched for Vincent Price week are literally decades old, I suppose that I should still give you a heads up that this review has some pretty heavy spoilers.  You've been warned! 

OK, so my vacation came up a lot faster than I thought it would, so in getting ready for it I didn't have much time to dedicate to my Vincent Price week.  So it's with my apologies to one of the late masters that I present this past-due, truncated version.

Instead of getting in three movies, I was only able to catch two Vincent Price flicks, The House on Haunted Hill and The FlyHouse of Wax gets short shrift because Netflix apparently decided to drop a ton of horror movies in October, and I'm too cheap to rent it.

We'll start with House on Haunted Hill, a 1959 horror/mystery directed by William Castle, who you may remember as the man who mastered gimmick marketing in the 1950s, such as insuring audience members for $1000 lest they die of fright during a movie, or the vibrating chair gag he created for another Vincent Price vehicle, The TinglerHouse on Haunted Hill has a fairly straight-forward premise, with Price's Frederick Loren inviting 5 seemingly random guests to spend one night at an allegedly haunted house for a party that he and his wife are throwing.  Every guest that stays the night will receive $10,000, as long as they are alive to collect it.

This simple premise, however, serves what turns out to be a very convoluted scheme...actually, TWO very convoluted schemes.  Loren's wife Annabelle attempts to manipulate the guests into fearing Loren so much that they will shoot him with one of the .45 caliber guns given as "party favors."  At the same time, Loren manipulates the guests to his own end, making them believe that one of them had in fact killed him, and then faking an attack by his skeleton to coerce Annabelle into a tank of acid.

For me, there are a lot of holes in this plot and a some things that don't quite make sense (wouldn't Annabelle have sensed something was up when Loren invited Dr. Trent, her lover and fellow plotter?).  However, I should note at this juncture that I fell asleep for 15-20 minutes of the movie, so I had to infer quite a bit from the ending as well as a perusal of the Wikipedia plot summary.  Is this unprofessional?  Yes.  But I'm not getting paid for this so technically, I'm not a professional.  For those of you reading this, you get what you pay for. 

I'll also admit that my falling asleep wasn't entirely the movie's fault, as I have the sleep patterns of a 72-year-old Floridian retiree, so I should have known better than to start a movie after 11pm on a weeknight.  However, I also think that I may have gotten more enjoyment out of this movie when it came out in theaters.  There, Castle would have deployed his latest gimmick, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton called "Emergo" that theaters would release during a faked black-out.  There's a reason some of these movies relied on such gimmicks: they're kind of hokey.

Perhaps more interesting than the movie itself, however, is the subtext of class politics.  David Skal discusses this in his book The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  Skal claims that House offers "an American microcosm of haves and have-nots" with Price's eccentric millionaire "exerting malign influence over his guests."  Most of the guests are there explicitly attending the party because they desperately need the money, and they have no idea they are acting as pawns for a murderous game between two wealthy sociopaths.

As a whole, I think House on Haunted Hill works better for me when viewed as a piece of horror history rather than a movie I'd watch just for pure enjoyment.  I'll always enjoy watching Price act like a smarmy bastard, but I've seen movies where he's done that in more of an enjoyable movie, such as Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death.  I think if I watch House on Haunted Hill again, I'll want it to be in a group, preferably with access to a giant skeleton that can be dropped into the room.

Further Reading:

Skal, David.  The Monster Show:  A Cultural History of Horror.  New York:  W.W. Norton &
           Company, 1993.

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