Castle may have been known for his clever marketing, but “House on Haunted Hill” proves there was substance behind his legendary style.
In 1959, Director William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill became a definitive and stylistic film. His choice to not over-compose with the music still makes this classic even more effective. In fact, Castle shows us that silence and mystery alone can be ghastly suspects.
A Clever Plot
The opening sequence of House on Haunted Hill delivers Castle’s imprint on the genre with the talking head of a disturbed Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), as he forewarns us about the hungry ghosts and the house’s murderous history. Then a perfect transition over to the debonair and deceiving millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price), who introduces us to his five guests arriving in the fashion of a funeral procession escort.
Each stranger has one common element, they need the ten thousand dollars that Loren has promised each of them for staying the night at the rented and looming house that looks more like a mortuary. Meet the confident pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), gambler and writer Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), the returning visitor Watson, an opportunist, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), and young and burdened Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig).
Loren and his glamourous fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) have an insufferable marriage, and by their conversations, if only dialog could murder, a bit of murderous matrimony.
While awaiting Loren’s greeting and the introduction of the evening’s rules, doors slam, and a chandelier falls.
Pritchard fills the others in on his previous ghostly experiences at the mansion, including the suspicious deaths of former guests. When blood drops from the ceiling onto Ruth’s hands, Pritchard leads Loren and the cautious group down to the cellar to show them the rumored wine vat still full of acid and floating bones.
Lance and Nora decide to explore the unsettling mysteries of the cellar. Nora immediately encounters a gliding and creepy blind woman that nobody else can see while Lance is trapped in a separate room and hit over the head. Annabelle forewarns Lance and Nora that Frederick is set on killing them all, igniting more suspicions of unexplained events and sightings of ghosts that gaslight Nora from the rest of the group, except Watson.
The ghosts Nora encounters end up being the two caretakers of the estate. With everyone now locked in the house for the night, the Lorens give each guest a “party favor” coffin box with a handgun to protect themselves; as Dr. Trent exclaims the situation, “fear makes people do amazing things.”
As more supernatural encounters lead to a gruesome discovery, everyone is guilty until proven innocent.
An Enduring Legacy
Castle was the King of Promotion, connecting with his fans through extensive touring and teasing the audience with his trailers, all before social media took over. The “Emergo” gimmick was incorporated during the theatrical screenings of House on Haunted Hill, in which a prop skeleton flew above the audience during its mirrored scenes.
But this film was so much more than a clever gimmick.
When you give House on Haunted Hill another watch, you can study the smart setup and foreshadowing dialog of each character dynamic written by Rob White, who went on to make four more films with Castle. Price also collaborated with Castle that same year on The Tingler. The film is still under public domain, and the 2005 color restoration does a superb job of not taking away from Castle’s visual dark tones, currently streaming on Tubi.
I’ve always wondered if William Castle’s 1959 horror classic House on Haunted Hill was overshadowed by Psycho or aided by its release. Honestly, I think both films equally helped propel horror to find a broader audience and more support from the studios. Castle and Alfred Hitchcock were not rivals from what I read but were inspired by each other. This makes me love Castle’s affection for the haunted even more.
Dante and Castle’s daughter both wrote touching introductions for the 2011 published screenplay, and I’m delighted that Dante featured this classic horror masterpiece in his Film Inferno Fest on Shout! Factory TV.