Horror Movie Homework: “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

1959 poster for “House on Haunted Hill,” with Vincent Price looking…quizzical.

I feel I owe this movie an apology for having seen its 1999 remake first. But it wasn’t really my fault; see, I was promised James Marsters and, as a diehard Spike fangirl, how could I pass up the opportunity? Someone should’ve told me he’s in the thing for all of forty-five fucking seconds!

In any case, it certainly isn’t the worst remake you’ll ever see — but the original has charms all its own.

I can’t say the set is really one of them. It seemed to me like a fairly standard Hollywood ‘haunted house’ — the external shots had more interest. The house looks sort of like someone crushed an Art Deco nightmare together with an Aztec temple and then sat on the whole thing to flatten it out. I have to say I think the location scouts for the remake had more fun with their find. There wasn’t a lot of threat with this set — there were creaking doors, pits of acid, strange hallways, odd room decorations — but nothing really outre or horrifying on its own terms without being explained or given meaning by the characters. Perhaps I’ve worked in too many historic houses to be bothered by long strips of ugly carpet!

As in all good horror movies, the tension comes from the characters — and here I have to say that the supporting cast really gives poor old Vincent Price a lot of work to do. The exception is Pritchard, the nervous, more or less drunken owner of the house. He’s the only one of the group to have been in the house before; his brother and a few other relations have been ‘offed’ by the ‘ghosts’ of the house. He’s spent a night in the house before — in fact, his is the opening narrative voice in the movie — and is coming back reluctantly due to the money promised by Frederick Loren to all the attendants of his little house party.

Pritchard struck me as an odd character. There’s no clear reason why he’s coming back — does he need the money that badly to risk life and sanity again? — or why he spends the night trying vainly and increasingly incoherently to warn the other characters but has clearly done nothing to arm himself. No little book of spells, no lucky charms, no crosses, no garlic, no nuthin’. He’s clear that the guns Price hands out as ‘party favors’ won’t help against the ghosts — full points there — but is more of a negative information source than a positive one. He announces doom loudly and regularly, but doesn’t seem to have any thought of escaping it. But he doesn’t have the feel of a character who’s just dragging himself back to face an inevitable doom — he’s got more life to him than that, but not much. Ruth Bridgers, too, is an underused character — increasingly unused, in fact, as the movie goes on — she almost entirely disappears after the midpoint!

Loren and his wife, Annabelle, create two of the half dozen or so genuinely frightening scenes in the movie with the subdued viciousness of their marital strife. In their first scene, it’s even a little hard to tell if they’re actually fighting or having a kind of dark Nick and Nora moment. As they get deeper into it, it becomes quite clear that this is no Charlesian love scene that will end with martinis and a treat for the puppy. There’s real hate there, the kind that has gone past heat and gone into ice and a kind of twisted affection: the person you loathe so much that you actually want them around you more so that you can torment them and watch them squirm. It’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s obvious where Famke Janssen and Geoffrey Rush got their inspiration.

The haunts themselves are…somewhat indeterminate. It’s never made clear if there actually are ghosts — most of the ‘hauntings’ are explicable by other means — or whether the house is simply vastly unlucky or the site of some very unhappy marriages. There certainly isn’t the handy explanation given in the remake of the house having once been your classic ‘insane asylum run by a mad, experimental doctor.’ It’s a good explanation, don’t get me wrong but — perhaps a bit overdone? Like the sacred burial ground site, it needs to be given a rest for a few seasons.

A couple of the ‘ghost’ scenes are extremely effective: Nora discovering the blind wife of the caretaker in the dark room is beautifully grotesque. The make-up — given that you see the elderly woman’s face for only a few seconds — is quite as good at giving the viewer a start as anything in the remake, possibly better. The appearance of the ‘hanged wife’ outside of Nora’s window with the rope winding its way from her throat to Nora’s feet is also excellent. Her pallid appearance against the storm clouds, trailing veils whipping about her, is a haunting straight out of Wilkie Collins.

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