"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."
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 * ".
I tell a lie. I had forgotten the
remake was to open this coming weekend. What actually got me motivated
in this direction
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 *.
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
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
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 attacks...in
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.
in the parlor, Pritchard is entertaining the other guests with tales
of the previous murders in the house. ("...the heads were never
found...you 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
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.
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 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:
go downhill from there for our partygoers - Annabelle winds up hanged
in the stairwell, in a manner that rules out 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.
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
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....
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.
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
Good cast, plenty of spooky stuff happening, very nice score, cool junk
like walking skeletons pushing nightgown-clad babes into acid
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
this was so even in its initial release. Haunted Hill made use
of William Castle's gimmicks, this time called "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.
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.
I tell you this: if there isn't a 12 ft., luminous, inflatable skeleton
in attendance, I am going to be pissed.