House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Absolute Classic

House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Movie Poster

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

As a horror movie critic, it is necessary to be as objective as possible. On the best of days, it proves an impossible task. My passions for the genre inhibit total objectivity. Horror movies have been with me for my entire life. Some movies lie so ingrained in my being that there is no way for me to step outside of myself to see this movie through a new eyes.

The House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Title CardRegardless, I must review them. The film in which I am about to review is the first horror movie that really got me. It drew me in so completely that I truly believe that this was the beginning of my life long obsession for the horror genre. This is the review of the original House on Haunted Hill.

House on Haunted Hill – A Classic Opening

It starts with a blistering scream in the darkness.

House on Haunted Hill stars Vincent Price as millionaire mogul Fredrick Loren. He is having a birthday party for his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). They host the party in a haunted mansion that resides on a hill. The Loren’s invite 5 guests. Frederick is offering a $10,000 dollar reward for anyone that can stay in the house all night.

It is a preposterous setup for sure. However, it provides just enough plot to get into the meat of it all. Each guest has a their own motive for attending.  In a great opening scene, the guests arrive in a single file procession of funeral hearses, slowly rolling up the drive, one guest per car.

House on Haunted Hill - The Legendary Vincent Price
The Legendary Vincent Price

The Guest List

First is Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), a test pilot. He needs the money. Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum) is a newspaper columnist.  She is writing a story on ghosts, and the money is just a bonus.  Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is the owner of the house, but he spends no time there because his family was murdered in the house. He absolutely believes that the house is haunted.

Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshall) believes that this event will help him with his research on hysteria, but likely he is in it for the money too.  Finally, Nora Manning is an employee of Frederick’s.  Her husband was injured in an accident, and she needs the money as the sole provider for their family.

The Loren’s Secrets

Fredrick relationship with his wife is rocky to say the least. She so much as accuses Fredrick of using the party as a scheme, possibly for murder. She goes as far as to accuse him of murdering his previous wives.  Likewise, Frederick believes that she has poisoned him before. His apprehensions keep him safe.

Watson Pritchard – The Warning

As the party arrives at the house, Watson, begins to tell the tale of the house. His brother was murdered here.  He walks the party through all of stories and murders that have occurred there.  The tour ends in the basement, where he reveals a pit of acid where a previous resident murdered his wife.

House on Haunted Hill - Human Heads!
Human Heads!

What is it about Nora?

Immediately the scares begin.  Two guests, Lance and Nora inspect the basement. Lance goes into a closet and the door slams and locks. The lights dim and Nora sees the ghost of an old woman eerily approaching and then dissolving back into the shadows.  She runs for help.  Lance is found unconscious on the floor. He believes that something was in the room with him, so he goes back to investigate.  Nora is once again menaced by the ghost of the old woman, this time within inches of her.

Nora, the focal point of the haunting, finds a decapitated human head in her suitcase. In her search for help, she is accosted by an old man in the hallway, beckoning her to come with him before , “he kills you”. As makes her way back down to the group, she learns that the ghost of the old woman and the man in the hallway are the caretakers of the home.

House on Haunted Hill – Locked In

Fredrick gathers the party, explains the rules of the contest and offers a coffin shaped box with a loaded .45 pistol to each guest as a means of protection.  Anyone still in the house at midnight is locked in for the night. Of course, when Nora leads the group to her room to see the head, it is gone. They think she is crazy, but Lance finds another head in her room.

House on Haunted Hill - Carol Ohmart as Annabelle Loren
Carol Ohmart as Annabelle Loren

Annabelle Loren – Suicide?

Upon hearing a scream, Lance runs up stairs to find Annabelle Loren hanging by here neck, apparently a suicide. Lance then runs into Nora, who claims that Frederick tried to strangle her, and thought her dead.  Meanwhile, suspicion shifts from suicide, to murder because here is no way for Annabelle to have hanged herself the way she did.

Frederick is obviously the lead suspect since none of the other guests could have possibly had a motive. For protection they decide to retire to their rooms with their guns until morning. Various supernatural events happen to each of the guests as they wait out the night. The most pronounced being Nora’s sightings of Annabelle’s ghost at her window.

The Game is Afoot

Dr. Trent sneaks into the supposed death chamber where the dead body of Annabelle rests.The truth is that Annabelle is not dead. She and Dr. Trent faked her death in order to drive Nora crazy.  Their ultimate goal is to drive Nora to kill Frederick so that they can run away together. As Dr. Trent describes it, it is the “perfect crime”. The key is convincing a terrified Nora to go to the cellar with her gun while Frederick is there.

They succeed when Nora shoots Frederick in the basement. Dr. Trent prepares to throw the body of Frederick into the acid when the lights go out. There is a splash. Meanwhile, Annabelle makes her way to the basement after hearing the gunshot. Slowly, the doors all close by themselves. The lights go dim. Looking into the pit off acid, she sees a skeleton rise. To her horror, it slowly approaches her as it speaks to her in Fredrick’s voice. The skeleton pushes her into the acid to her death.

Frederick, emerges from the shadows with an elaborate puppetry rig with a smug smile and a soliloquy. “Goodnight Dr. Goodnight Annabelle. The crime you two planned was indeed perfect. Only the victim is alive and murderers are not.  It’s a pity you didn’t know when you started your game of murder… that I was playing too.”

Annabelle meets her doom at the hands of her husband
Annabelle meets her doom

Twists, Turns and Good Fun

What begins as a ghost story, transforms into an elaborate murder mystery on par with anything that Agatha Christie could have conceived. Its premise is a bit corny, but what horror movie plot isn’t. This film manages to pull off some genuinely legitimate scares. The ghost of the old woman is terrifying. Multiple severed heads set the bar for gore in 1959.

Much of the acting average, but Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are exquisite. Vincent Price delivers a perfect performance and I consider it to be one of his finest. Don’t tell that to The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Carol Ohmart is beautifully vindictive and spiteful. The dynamic between Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart provides the subtle undertone of dark humor. Sure, the ending stretches plausibility, but if were looking for scares and welcomed a couple of twists, this movie checks those boxes well.

House on Haunted Hill – The Cultural Impact on a Child

When I first saw movie as a kid, I remember my grandmother telling me that she went to high-school with Vincent Price as a young girl. Something about this fact always made this movie seem more personal to me. It definitely triggered a life-long appreciation for the man’s work.

Additionally, the architecture of the House on Haunted Hill to be fascinating. The house is a sprawling boxy behemoth fitting as a tomb for an ancient king. The stone walls are textured in a repetitive pattern that looks like hieroglyphics. In the film it is described as a house that is over a century old, but strangely it looks quite modern. As a matter of fact, this house is famous. The Ennis House resides in California. The home was built by Frank Loyd Wright in 1924. The House on Haunted Hill was barely 30 years old at the time of the filming.

House on Haunted Hill – A Classic Among Classics

There is so much to say about this film.  In fact, it was quite exhausting to write this review. I regularly try not to create a play by play of the film in these reviews, but there is really no other way to approach this one. One either tells nothing about the events of the film, or tells everything. I find this film to embody everything that I ever loved about horror movies. House on Haunted Hill truly is a classic in my book and it ranks as one of my favorites of all time.  I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great example of the art of the horror film.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Absolute Classic - Malevolent Dark
house on haunted hill poster 2 e1624552071247

Director: William Castle

Date Created: 1959-01-01 00:00

Editor's Rating:
5

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