Film #1: House on Haunted Hill
Directed by: William Castle
A piercing scream echoes through the black fog of the first frame in House on Haunted Hill. Horror in a nutshell. A singular moment that encapsulates the desire every director wants to achieve who works in this genre of revulsion. Audiences flock to cinemas to be frightened by the unknown. They wouldn’t dare wish these occurrences on themselves in their own real lives, but in those dark areas of cinema they can almost reach out and touch terror. Safety in not wanting to feel safe. The beauty of screaming, death, ghosts, terror and the end. It’s beautiful isn’t it?
One house, five people, ten thousand dollars to anyone who can survive, and thus opens up Castle’s playground. House on Haunted Hill has always reminded me of a board game. The premise just screams dice rolling with friends. Castle is a populist director to the fullest degree, and he wanted his cinematic experiences to even sometimes more closely resemble amusement park rides. House on Haunted Hill falls very much in line with the type of gimmick filmmaking he was known for, but this time it’s handled in the plot, and enough winking at the camera to offset any sort of suspension of disbelief. He wants you to know you’re watching a movie and most of all he wants you to have fun.
Vincent Price is the grandmaster of ceremonies here, and while the plot sidesteps survivalism for the perfect murder everything still runs through his dungeon master etiquette. He’s the man with the money, and the power, and he’s exactly why some of these guests are planning to kill tonight. It doesn’t always make a ton of sense, but Price is such a pro that he can carry even the most convuluted of plots (and this one is pretty silly). He’s basically the reason to watch this movie, and since I’m a huge Vincent Price fan there is more than enough to warrant this film’s pseudo classic haunted house film status, even though it couldn’t be further from a pure haunted house picture like The Haunting.
William Castle isn’t exactly a craftsman in image or themes, but he knows that his films are horror pictures of simple pleasures, and really that’s enough when the players are this game. However, there are a couple of inspired sequences. The opening that lays out the exposition of the picture and the rules of the game so to speak is extremely strong. The scene featuring the one servant of the house floating by on a skateboard is also one of the best jump scare moments in horror from this time period. There isn’t much to grasp onto underneath the narrative’s dual premise of perfect murder and haunted house, but I can’t help but embrace a film where Vincent Price has skeleton friends and the final moment is a warning that the audience is going to die next. It’s pure schlock, but I love it.