The Bad Movie Report

House on Haunted Hill

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"The ghosts are moving tonight..restless...hungry. May I introduce myself? I'm Watson Pritchard. In just a minute I'll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people, including my brother, have been murdered in it. Since then, I bought the house. I only spent one night there, and when they found me in the morning... I was almost dead."

So begins House on Haunted Hill, a William Castle movie getting the remake treatment later this week. This, I thought, would be an excellent time to examine this 40 year old chestnut. Now, in the writing, I realize that with the incipient opening of the remake, about twenty skrabillion other sites will be doing the same. Ah well. As the song goes, "it's too late to turn back now * ".

Actually, I tell a lie. I had forgotten the remake was to open this coming weekend. What actually got me motivated in this House on Haunted Hill - the posterdirection was a posting on the Message Board by Joe Opposable Thumb Films Bannerman to the effect that House on Haunted Hill sucked, why were they remaking it? Dr. Freex, a friend to underdogs everywhere, fired back that it did not suck, and shouldn't the bad movies get remade, while certified classics like The Haunting and Psycho be left alone? Thus began a shooting war of epic proportions * , of which this review is simply the latest salvo *.

"I am Oz the Suave and Sophisticated!"

One more lie concerns the opening of this film. First there is an absolutely black screen, and playing in the darkened theater are agonized screams and clanking chains worthy of the Disney LP Thrilling Chilling Sounds from the Haunted House (as I recall, my 13th birthday present - appropriate, no?); this is significant, and we'll examine why in a moment. Then we see the floating head of Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.) delivering to us the above opening monologue. He is replaced by the floating head of millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price)*, telling us he has rented the house for a macabre party which was his wife's idea ("She's so amusing."). In brief, he has offered each of his five guests $10,000 if they will spend the night in this haunted house.

From his Oz-like perch, Loren sees the guests arriving... in a funeral cortege. There is Lance Schroeder (Gig Young impersonator Richard Long), a test pilot looking for thrills of a different sort; Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a secretary in one of Loren's companies. Sole breadwinner for her family, she desperately needs the money; Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), a psychiatrist hoping to glean material for his study on hysteria; Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), a gossip columnist who wants the money to pay off gambling debts; and Watson Pritchard himself, giving the house another crack at him for unknown reasons. Probably because the booze is free.

Domestic bliss.  Or Something.Loren picked the guests himself, much to the displeasure of Annabelle Loren (Carol Ohmart), who is, we find out, the fourth Mrs. Loren ("The first one simply disappeared, the next two died of heart their twenties!"). This marriage is, as they say, on the rocks - the rocks of Gibraltar!(rimshot) Annabelle will not agree to a divorce (she wants his entire fortune) and has tried to poison Loren at least once.

Down in the parlor, Pritchard is entertaining the other guests with tales of the previous murders in the house. ("...the heads were never can hear them at night...whispering to each other...and crying!") At Loren's urging, Pritchard takes them on the dime tour, pointing out the dried blood stain on the ceiling, which will still drip on you if you stand underneath ("Too late! They've marked you!"), and what must be the centerpiece of the realtor's tour, the vat in the wine cellar which is still filled with acid from a former murder.

"Rar!  I'm a monsta!"  "That is SO cool!"Nora starts running into a ghastly old woman with unnerving regularity; Lance, investigating a darkened room, gets knocked out by a unseen assailant. Annabelle warns Nora that Loren is dangerous, and then she intimates to Lance that her husband would kill her if he could.

Looking into a darkened room of her own, Nora is surprised by a stranger telling her, "Come with us...come with us, before he kills you!" (this right after she finds a severed head in her overnight case). This leads Nora to the determination that she is not staying the night, even after she I'm feeling a lot of love in this room right now.finds out the stranger and the old woman are actually the house's caretakers (there is still the matter of the severed head, after all). (We - and Nora - are also told that the woman is 'quite blind'. Which does not explain why she likes to pose like El Chupacabras in dark rooms and apparently glide about on a skateboard) This is all rendered moot when the caretakers split early, locking everyone in for the night. The only door to the outside, it should be mentioned, is solid steel, and all the windows are barred. Oh, and the only light available is gaslight and 300 watt candles (maybe they just made better candles in the 50's and 60's?) Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Loren hands out the party favors - loaded .45 automatics, each in it's own little coffin (I looked in vain for the credit "Party Consultant: Charlton Heston").

Things go downhill from there for our partygoers - Annabelle winds up hanged in the stairwell, in a manner that rules out Insert 'Just Hanging Around' Joke here.suicide. Convinced that they are now in a low-rent version of Ten Little Indians, everyone locks themselves in their rooms with their guns to await the sunrise. Except for Lance, who tries to find a way out of the house, and merely locks himself in a hidden passageway, and Nora, who is driven out of her room by a ghostly Annabelle hovering outside her window. She then encounters the mandatory spooky house organ playing itself, and the patented William Castle monster hand reaching around the door.

Trent and Loren, hearing the organ (but not Nora screaming her head off?) decide to investigate - Loren canvassing the lower part of the house while Trent covers the upper. It is here that we discover that Annabelle is quite alive and the whole thing is a plot to kill Loren - the two have gotten Nora into such a high state of fear that she will shoot Loren on sight. Indeed, that is the way things play out, as Nora (for some reason) winds up in that spooky cellar, the gaslights go out one by one, and Loren makes his entrance just in time for Nora to perforate him.

After the now thoroughly panicked Nora flees, Trent appears and prepares to throw Loren in the acid vat... but the lights go totally out, and something happens in the dark....

"Can I use some of your hand lotion?"Annabelle shows up to play the grieved widow (the whole hanging thing was just supposed to be a ghoulish joke, you see), but finds no one in the cellar. The gaslights dim, each door slams shut by itself, and a skeleton rises from the vat, and proceeds to follow her about the room, as she goes from door to door, trying to escape. Loren's voice is heard: "You finally got it all, didn't you? Everything I had, including my life. But you're not going to live to enjoy it, murderess!" Trying to avoid the skeleton's bony touch, Annabelle falls into the acid.

But then Loren comes out of hiding, wearing a bizarre rig, all pulleys and ropes - the skeleton was actually a marionette! As Loren intones to the bubbling acid: "You weren't aware that that while you were playing your little game of murder - I was playing, too!" The others, having freed Lance, find Loren hale and hearty. He explains that the guns were loaded with blanks, and that Trent and Annabelle just tried to kill him - there was a struggle, and his wife fell into the acid....and he is now ready for the courts to decide his fate. The end.

So. Good cast, plenty of spooky stuff happening, very nice score, cool junk like walking skeletons pushing nightgown-clad babes into acid"Boy, did I just pull one on the audience, or what?" vats... what, you may be wondering, is Joe's problem with this? I think I can answer this in a nutshell: this is likely the most sloppily-plotted movie William Castle ever made. The final act, in particular, plays out like Castle and writer Robb White put a bunch of plot points and cool things in a bag, shook 'em up, and pulled out several at random. Though the plot twist concerning the plot to get Nora to kill Loren is interesting, it seems a rather Rube Goldberg-ish approach to the situation; that aside, this new plot is immediately invalidated by Trent attempting to throw Loren into the acid: why? Don't they need a body, so Annabelle will inherit? Why the hell is the acid still there? And I don't care how rich Loren is, that skeleton marionette is just plain impossible (my suspension of disbelief is complaining about a shooting pain in its groin region). Jim Henson would have killed for a rig like that... he would've saved beaucoup bucks over the years.

If I had seen a movie with this many plot holes and contrivances made in the last ten years, I would hold it up as an example of everything wrong with genre filmmaking today, and I would wholeheartedly agree with Joe - and I do, halfway. Yet I somehow persist in defending it. Why?

Let's go back to that opening sequence. With the thrilling, chilling sounds, etc. - as I said, the same record I played to death as a child. This is the key to my liking of House on Haunted Hill, and not simply the talk of severed heads, and that damned skeleton that gave me nightmares as a child - it's the fact that this movie was made with children in mind.

No, hear me out. I do not feel that re-runs of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town should be replaced with House on Haunted Hill - no, wait, maybe I do - nor that children's fare is an excuse for poor plotting (I've got MY Iron Giant figure, dammit). This movie is a relic of a very particular and bygone period in the history of movie-going.

Look behind you, Nora!I feel like some host on AMC whenever I find myself talking about things like this, but in the olden days double features ruled the silver screen and it was accepted policy to drop the kids off at the local theater on a weekend afternoon and let the little dickens be entertained by a couple of movies and cartoons (Night of the Living Dead, as reported by Roger Ebert, put paid to this rosy tradition). William Castle made several flicks perfect for this venue, and House on Haunted Hill is one of them. Though looking at the proceedings with an adult eye provides you with, at best, a campy experience, viewed through the eyes of a child the experience becomes a scary, cathartic one; after all, at the end, there are no such things as ghosts, and only the bad people get hurt. Who else but a child would accept those plot vagaries simply because it would lead to something cool?

This is the missing piece that allows me to enjoy Haunted Hill - somehow, I can't imagine a modern genre filmmaker taking care to make sure his horror film was family-friendly. There's a need for such things, as witness the astounding success of the Goosebumps series and its imitators, but in this era, the horrors of everyday life are too close to the surface, as near as our TV screen and the nightly news. The innocence that allowed something as thin as House on Haunted Hill to have any impact is, I fear, a commodity in short supply.

Perhaps this was so even in its initial release. Haunted Hill made use of William Castle's gimmicks, this time called The most realistic severed head I've seen - this evening."Emergo". At an appropriate time, a 12ft tall, luminous, inflatable skeleton would pop out of a box above the movie screen and fly via a wire up to the projectionist's booth. Most theaters, I'm sure, didn't bother - it was a bitch to set up, and had to be reloaded between every showing - but mainly, the skeleton meant one thing to a wound-up, sugar-buzzed kiddie audience: target practice! Probably not the reaction Castle expected. Then, I like to think he didn't really care, as long as the kids were having a good time.

So. Whither the remake? I look forward to Geoffrey Rush's interpretation of Loren (First Casanova Frankenstein and now this - could we finally be getting a new horror star?). I fully expect the plot holes of the original to be plugged, and the new plot to most likely contribute holes of its own. The first movie had a nice, solid cast; so does the remake. The special effects will almost certainly be better.

But, I tell you this: if there isn't a 12 ft., luminous, inflatable skeleton in attendance, I am going to be pissed.



Child-safe horror.

- October 24, 1998