Don't let the ghosts and the ghouls disturb you, love
There’s a lightweight, spooky charm to William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, released in 1959 (and not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House, released… in 1959, or its various adaptations, including 1963’s outstanding The Haunting). It alternates between Friday night haunted house spookfest and a goofy Christie-esque chamber murder mystery. And it occurred to me about a half hour into the movie that this is basically exactly the pitch of the Scooby-Doo franchise: a playful blend of Gothic horror imagery and a quest for a rational explanation.
As soon as I processed it as Scooby-Doo but for grown-ups, House on Haunted Hill made perfect sense to me, and every subsequent scene and twist seemed perfect. There’s a rattling skeleton (in fact, some screenings had an “Emergo” effect of a skeleton on a pulley flying through the auditorium), a floating dismembered head, ghoulish monsters riding around on rails, cobweb-filled corridors, secret doors and rooms, and half-baked criminal conspiracies. All we need is a Merseybeat theme song and a Great Dane. It’s a specific tone of horror that kicks ass but could inspire eye rolls if you’re looking for something legitimately scary or grim. (I almost never am, so I was happy.)
The story follows the eccentric millionaire couple Frederick and Annabelle Loren (Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart) as they set up a party contest: Various strangers are invited to a reportedly-haunted mansion. If they survive a night in the house, they each get $10,000 (over $100k adjusted for inflation). But will the ghosts get them? Or are the ghosts in fact a human contrivance as an excuse to get away with murder?
In fact, Frederick and Annabelle’s marriage is so toxic yet charged, their repartee about 15% horny and 85% venomous, that it provides a perfect backbone for the story. It’s a relationship where you could simultaneously believe that their dark game would break out into deviant hate-sex (offscreen, since we’re in PG land), or one of them legitimately murdering the other, or possibly both.
There is admittedly some tonal whiplash in the movie: Sometimes it really leans into being a creepy thrill ride with no purpose other than mood and spectacle; other times, it puts its characters in a room and lets them chat for a few minutes in an effort to give them enough personality and motivation that we might try and guess who is responsible for what off-screen act most recently occurred. But it honestly works as a campy horror concoction, neither taking its story too seriously nor half-assing it so much that we can completely ignore its structure or brush away any character’s macabre demise.
It all goes down like candy from a production and acting perspective, too. Price’s deeply inflected sarcasm is a wonderful vessel for the goofy-creepy tone. The lovely, grainy photography captures a wide variety of creepy, shadowy spaces with crispness — much more than you’d expect from a package that otherwise conveys as a frothy B-picture.
This is my first ever Castle picture, so maybe I’m just projecting too much of his standard charms onto this specific film, but House on Haunted Hill feels like the best possible version of itself. It definitely won’t be my last Castle film.