The House on Haunted Hill - 1959
S P Oldham
I just watched another of the films listed in Wednesday Lee Friday’s ’15 Black and White Horror Movies That Are Scary as Hell,’ posted on ScreenRant on 2oth August 2016. Find it here: https://screenrant.com/scariest-black-and-white-horror-movies-ever-all-time/
Today I watched the original 1959 version of The House on Haunted Hill, starring the inimitable Vincent Price. Carol Ohmart played his wife, and what a stunningly beautiful and elegant woman she was.
From the very beginning, literally, the film sets out to scare, with classic ‘ghost noises’ and screams coming from the dark before we meet a single character. The ‘disembodied’ heads (actors talking straight to camera whilst wearing black t-shirts against a black background) add to the spooky ambience and it is entirely fitting – the premise of the film is that a man hires a house known to be haunted so that his wife can host a Haunted House Party. All of the guests have one thing in common; the need, or greed, to get their hands on the ten thousand dollars up on offer to anyone who can spend the night (12 hours) in the house.
Within the first 20 minutes or so the beautiful young woman’s life has been saved twice by the handsome and assertive young man, a trope I found a little tiresome in a film so relatively recently made. There again, less even than 60 years ago, attitudes were so very different from today. Ah well, moving on.
The scene where the rope wraps itself around Nora’s feet just made me think that I used to own a pair of shoes very similar to the ones she is wearing, and how fashions go round in circles. This should be a clue to the fact that this particular scene was in no way ‘scary as hell…’
A couple of genuine jump scares, at least I wasn’t expecting them, and although less realistic than modern horror, they at least make the film more deserving of the title ‘horror’ than most others on this list. You can even forgive the director the very timely thunderstorm outside.
It definitely has a very creepy feel and a dark atmosphere. It is sad that, in these modern times, we are so used to all the modes of haunting and scary tricks this film employs, that now they cause us to raise our eyebrows rather than our pulse rates. I imagine that in its day (a phrase I think I have used in each and every one of these reviews) the film would have had much more impact, seen to have been far scarier. Even so, as I said, it still carries a creepy vibe.
There are a couple of nice little twists to the tale. I saw one coming a mile off, but I have to admit, not the other (though I worked it out as we went along.) As a kid, I was terrified of the squeaky door noises to be found in just about any remotely scary film, so one of the last scenes would have truly terrified me, with no less than three doors swinging squeakily shut by the agency of an unseen hand! I admit it gave me shivers, remembering how my younger self used to respond to that sound.
I wish they had ended the film on Vincent Price. That would have been far more effective. Instead, there was an overly-dramatic, doom-laden prophetic last line, followed by the maniacal laughter, which was gilding the lily in my view. Mind you, that wasn’t the only thing that was overdone in this film – Nora’s incessant screaming drove me up the wall, for a start.
A bit of fun and yes, this is one of the movies on the list of 15 that qualifies as being scary (by which I mean spooky, not gory or graphic; there is a difference, as I have discussed before,) unlike some of its companions. I hadn’t seen this one before. I enjoyed it, but now that I have seen it once, I won’t rush to watch it again.
Its biggest redeeming feature? Vincent Price, obviously, and his unmistakable voice.
Lines I loved:
“Don’t you think you can be much braver, if you’re paid for it?”
“Darling, the only ghoul in the house is you.”
Nice little touch of humour in the credits, where it tells us that Skeleton was played by Himself. A bit tongue in cheek and I love that!
S P Oldham