“If I see the morning hours
I’ll have one more yesterday,
Take life from tomorrow
‘Cause I’ve burned out my today”-Megadeth
With Halloween approaching quickly, haunted attractions and yard haunts are popular sites this season for festive frighteners. Over the years, amateur yard haunts have become impressive popular displays in certain neighborhoods across the U.S. I haven’t been to Canada, I can’t confirm their Halloweenieness at this time. Unfortunately, in recent bizarre news coming out of southern Ohio, a man is being held on suspicion that he killed a woman and displayed her bruised body like a dummy in a Halloween yard display. Her lifeless body was hanging from a fence in plain view of the neighborhood and all passersby.
Though the news of such an act is disturbing and to think of how many kids might have seen what they thought was a graphic yard ornament, saddens the heart. A life was taken, a loved one lost, and negativity placed on Halloween more so than it already has by naysayers. This horrendous crime of hiding a body amongst Halloween decorations is nothing new and apparently on the rise within the past decade. The contemporary celebration of Halloween is not morbid death obsession, but in fact to appreciate the miracle of life, and understand the balance of our existence.
Not to make light of the loss of life, I still have to write an article. I’m a newsman with a column, so I try to connect topical events with themes of films I cover. By no means do I want to exploit the victim for my own gain. My heart and prayers go out to her family. I report what I see and hear, to make the reader, aware of the connection between life and art around you. This tragedy, with all of the human dynamics that escalated into a chilling climax of this morbid situation, reminded me of the relationships, tension, and deadly games played between characters in today’s feature. So venture with me as we explore the dark corridors of the House on Haunted Hill (1959).
Fun begins right off the bat with black screen and a scream followed by rattling chains, groans, and other haunted house ambience. This opening was effective enough, that it birthed the concept and production of spooky sound effects records, tapes, discs that we use now around Halloween. A floating head of Watson Pritchard, underrated character actor Elisha Cook of The Haunted Palace (1963), warns us of the murderous history and horrors that lurk within the house. Another face welcomes us to our tale, debonair millionaire Frederick Loren, Vincent Price of The Last Man on Earth (1964), and shares details that he and his fourth wife (the previous have all died mysteriously), Annabelle, Carol “She’s so amusing” Ohmart of Spider Baby (1968), are throwing a “party” and we are invited with five other guests.
The five guests arrive via funeral procession led by a chauffeured hearse driving up the California hills to the lavish estate, the historic Ennis House designed by legendary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The guests are an diverse bunch, with the strapping test pilot Lance, Richard Long (you’ve got a dirty mind) of The Stranger (1946); newspaper columnist & gambler Ruth, Julie Mitchum of The High and the Mighty (1954); skeptical hysteria psychiatrist Dr. Trent, Alan Marshal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); Loren’s employee Nora, the tragic Carolyn Craig of Giant (1956); and the house’s inherited owner after his brother was killed, the drunkard Pritchard.
This spooky soirée is hosted in a supposed haunted house where gruesome murders occurred. The host and guests mingle, lightening the mood with some liver fattening spirits, white man’s burden as they say. Frederick promises to give his five guests each $10,000 (approximately $ 81,000 by 2015 inflation standards), with the stipulation they must stay the entire night in the house after the doors are locked at midnight. Understanding the rules of the party (all needing the loot), all receive a loaded pistol from small coffin boxes for their protection.
There is much tension between Loren and Annabelle. Annabelle comes across as a flirtatious, manipulating gold digger, which sticks around for Loren’s wealth risking her own safety out of greed, as she is adamant about him being psychotic insinuating he killed his other wives. Loren comes across as a smart, cunning, and a slightly sinister gent, holding his cards close to his chest. The marriage is toxic with both parties at fault for the dissolution, but the viewer isn’t really sure who to route for due to the amount of outrageous, scathing details they share about each other when arguing. There is much more going on in the backstory that we get hints to and time will reveal the real reason why this affluent, but corrosive couple have decided to throw such an odd party.
Like children walking through a spooky old house, the group examines each room and discovers in great detail that this abode definitely has a dark history to every nook and cranny. Locked in by the hired help at midnight, no one can opt of the party now, all must stay…and stay alive till the morning for their party treat. The night finds the party with us in tow, encountering a terrifying old lady, acid vats, bleeding ceilings, ghosts, severed heads, attacks in the dark, suicide, suspicion, and skeletons. There is a lot going on, not bad for a runtime of only 75 minutes!
House on Haunted Hill was produced/directed by William Castle of 13 Ghosts (1960) with a screenplay by longtime collaborator, Robb White of The Tingler (1959), loosely inspired by Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None (1939), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Filmed on the meager budget of $200,000, House was a box office success with fans and critics lauding it for its perfect combo of campy humor and horror.
Castle, the gimmick guru, hyped the film with his promotional device called “Emergo.” “Emergo” was nothing more than a pulley system disguised from the theater ceiling, which employed a giant plastic skeleton to hover over the audience on cue at the appropriate scene of the fright flick for an extra scare. It was effective, when it wasn’t being pelted with projectiles from troublesome boys’ accurate slingshots. Dang kids with their slingshots and their rock n’ roll Elvis music!
DVD releases over the years have been many, due to House having an address in the Public Domain zip code, which means any Mick, Keef, or Harry, can sell releases of it ripped from a computer in their grandmother’s basement. With so many copies out there (usually of subpar quality), you can pick it up in B/W, color, or RiffTrax copies, YouTube, and a plethora of other video sites. If you want a DVD, most have commentary with have special feature documentaries on Castle and/or “Emergo.” Tracking down a copy is easy, cheap, and highly recommended as an addition to your home video vault.
House on Haunted Hill is a classic within the subgenre of the old dark house films that intertwined a crime mystery with elements of the supernatural to keep the audience guessing to what is real and what is not. For film or horror merchandise collectors, an annotated leather bound copy of the script is available for a reasonable price, and would look good on any bookshelf or coffee table. A remake was released in 1999, avoid at all costs. It is a dismal display of homage to the original.
It would have been neat to witness “Emergo” in person. Going to a cinema nowadays, is no longer a collective experience with your cinema loving neighbors. The venues now are just a meeting place between strangers eating overpriced concessions, yearning for a fun outing that rarely returns the sense of enjoyment sought out for while they text on their phones throughout the film. Anticipation becomes disappointment, and one can be made to feel like a rube in spirit & wallet, by the film industry if you sit and think about it. Sure, some theaters have added recliners, real food, alcohol in some locales, and other comforts of home, but they fall flat on excitement. If I leave my house to take in a feature, I want to be entertained by the overall movie experience. The last time I felt that magic, was when Grindhouse (2007), was released. This was in part due to the excitement built up around the two features with faux trailers trying to capture the 70s experience all over again. It’s a shame we don’t have more entertainers like William Castle around anymore. He always gave the viewer a bang for their buck.
So when you are walking down your street or spying on your neighbors, keep an eye out for the happenings at the creepy house in the neighborhood with the ultrarealistic Halloween display. Real life ghouls lurk around the corner of our everyday lives. There are truly things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately, those things are people looking to prey on their fellow man. Real life is much scarier than anything we can view on the silver screen. Our minds play tricks on us; things don’t always appear as they truly are and there is definitely more than meets the eye. Stay safe…and scared.
Check out the House on Haunted Hill Trailer
View the full movie of House on Haunted Hill
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- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rick.baldwin.568
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