William Castle is one of my heroes. While he isn’t a world-class director, he was a top of the line showman. His book Step Right Up!…I’m Going to Scare the Pants off America is required reading. You can also check out the great documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle story to learn more.
One of his gimmicks that he used to sell his movies was called Emergo. As theaters played this movie, an elaborate pulley system released a plastic skeleton that would fly across the presumably horrified — or amused and even rancorous — audience.
This movie ended up being a huge success. Alfred Hitchcock — who Castle often imitated in movies like Homicidal — took and made his own low-budget horror film. You’ve probably seen it. It’s called Psycho.
It’s such a simple set up: Frederick Loren (the always awesome Vincent Price, whose line in this movie “It’s close to midnight” starts off the Michael Jackson song “Thriller,” a track on which he also appears) is an eccentric millionaire — is there any better kind? — who invites five people to a party for his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart, Spider Baby) in an allegedly haunted house.
If any of these people can survive one night, they get $10,000. They include test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long, who was the professor on Nanny and the Professor), newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum, yes the sister of Robert), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal in his next to last film; the actor Marshal died two years later from a heart attack while appearing in Chicago with Mae West in a production of her play Sextette. He had a heart attack on stage but finished the performance. The show, as they say, must go on…), Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig, probably best known for this movie) and Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Mr. Nicklas from Rosemary’s Baby).
The only thing that these strangers have is that they all need money. The Lorens also hate one another and are convinced that they are trying to kill one another. And for what it’s worth, Watson believes that the house is genuinely haunted by the ghosts of those murdered there, including his brother. There’s also a vat of acid in the basement that was used to kill the previous owner’s wife.
So is the house truly haunted? Is Annabelle trying to kill her husband Frederick? Who will survive? And how cool would it have been to have seen this movie in person with a giant skeleton bursting loose at the right moment?
House On Haunted Hill was filmed at the Ennis House in Los Feliz California, which was designed in 1924 by Frank Lloyd Wright. It also appears in the movie Blade Runner and was the mansion that Angel, Spike, and Drusilla lived in on the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was also used on the soap opera show within a show Invitation to Love on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
This was remade in 1999 and that film also had a 2007 sequel, Return to House on Haunted Hill.
You can get this movie as part of Shout! Factory‘s The Vincent Price Collection II on blu ray. Or you can watch it with or without Rifftrax commentary on Tubi. You can also watch it in black and white or in color on Amazon Prime. It’s also available on the Internet Archive.
One last bit of trivia: The theme song to this movie actually has lyrics! They are:
“There’s a house on Haunted Hill / Where ev’rything’s lonely and still / Lonely and still / And the ghost of a sigh / When we whispered good-bye / Lingers on / And each night gives a heart broken cry / There’s a house on Haunted Hill / Where love walked there’s a strange silent chill / Strange silent chill / There are mem’ries that yearn / For our hearts to return / And a promise we failed to fulfill / But we’ll never go back / No, we’ll never go back / To the house on Haunted Hill!”