The House On Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price gives a stellar performance as the suavely malevolent host of a “haunted house party” who offers his guests $10,000 if they can survive a night in the murderous mansion.
Watch for the great Elisha Cook Jr,(he played Wilmer in the “Maltese Falcon”) as the groveling homeowner.
The eerie looking home used for the exterior shots is the Ennis Brown house in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1924. It was later used in the films “Blade Runner”, “Black Rain”, and “Rocketeer”.
House on Haunted Hill is a 1959 American horror film directed by William Castle. The film was written by Robb White and stars Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart. Price plays an eccentric millionaire, Frederick Loren, who, along with his wife Annabelle, has invited five people to the house for a “haunted house” party. Whoever stays in the house for one night will earn $10,000. As the night progresses, the guests are trapped within the house with an assortment of terrors.
Frederick Loren (Vincent Price), an eccentric millionaire invites five people to a party he is throwing for his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) in an allegedly haunted house he has rented, promising to give each $10,000 with the stipulation that they stay the entire night in the house after the doors are locked at midnight. The guests are test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) who specializes in hysteria, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) who works for one of Loren’s companies, and the house’s owner Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). All are strangers to both the Lorens and each other, with their only commonality a desperate need for money.
The Lorens have a tense relationship; Frederick is convinced Annabelle tried to poison him in order to acquire his wealth, which Annabelle firmly denies, attributing his suspicions to paranoia and jealousy. Pritchard believes that the house is genuinely haunted by the ghosts of those murdered there, including his own brother. He gives a tour of the house, including a vat of acid in the basement which was used by a previous resident to kill his wife. When Lance and Nora remain behind to further explore the basement, Lance is locked in an empty room and struck on the head, while Nora is confronted by a menacing figure she takes for a ghost.
Annabelle privately warns Lance that her husband is scheming something, and that she suspects him of murdering his second and third wives. Gathering downstairs, the guests are told the rules of the party, and each is given a .45 ACP caliber pistol for protection. Having encountered further apparitions, Nora decides against staying the night, but the caretakers lock the doors five minutes early, taking that option out of the guests’ hands.
Lance is confronted by Nora, who tells him an unseen assailant strangled her and left her for dead. In light of Annabelle’s warnings, they both suspect Loren. He tells her to remain out of sight so that her attacker will still think her dead. Hearing a scream, Lance and Dr. Trent find Annabelle’s corpse, suspended to suggest she hanged herself, but the absence of a perch immediately arouses suspicions of murder. To survive the night, Lance and Dr. Trent propose that everyone stay in their rooms and shoot anyone who enters; thus the innocents will have no reason to leave their rooms, and the killer must stay put or admit his guilt.
Nora is chased from her room into the basement by Annabelle’s ghost. Aroused by the ghostly sounds, Trent concludes that the killer is about and proposes he and Loren split up to search the house. Lance uncovers a secret room at the end of the second-floor hall, but once he enters the door shuts behind him, trapping him. Trent instead meets with Annabelle, who had faked her death using a hanging harness and sedatives. Secretly lovers, the two of them have orchestrated the various mishaps in order to manipulate Nora into killing Loren. Nora, seeing Loren enter the basement with a gun in his hand, does indeed shoot him. After she flees, Trent slips in to dispose of Loren’s body in the vat of acid. The cellar (or possibly the film itself deliberately) goes dark, there is a choking sound, a splash and the sound of dissolving in the acid.
Annabelle walks to the now dimly-lit basement to confirm her husband is dead. All the doors mysterious swing shut and a skeleton rises from the acid, accuses her in Loren’s voice, and pursues her. As she backs away from it to the edge of the acid vat, it reaches out a hand and pushes her; off-balance, she falls into the vat. Loren emerges from the shadows, holding the puppeteer control unit that he used to manipulate the skeleton (the dim light concealed the wires) and revealing that he had known their plot all along.
After Nora, Pritchard and Ms. Bridges release Lance from the secret room, Nora tells them that she shot Loren. When they arrive in the cellar, Loren explains that he had loaded her gun with blanks, that his wife and Trent plotted to kill him, and that they both met their end in the vat of acid. He also implies that he will claim self-defense and, although responsible for their deaths, will not be convicted. Pritchard remains convinced the house is haunted, with Trent and Annabelle now added to its ranks of ghosts, and that he will be the next victim.
While exterior shots of the house were filmed at the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 1924 Ennis House in Los Feliz, California, the bulk of the film was shot on sound stages, depicting the interior of the house in a combination of styles, including 1890s Victorian, with gas chandeliers and sconces. The poster for the film included an illustration of a house in yet a third style, that of a fanciful four-story Romanesque structure.
The theatrical trailer promoted the film as The House on Haunted Hill, although all advertising material and the title on the film itself were simply titled House on Haunted Hill.
The film is perhaps best known for a promotional gimmick used in the film’s original theatrical release called “Emergo.” In some theaters that showed the film, exhibitors rigged an elaborate pulley system near the theater screen which allowed a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience during a corresponding scene late in the film. (Several modern repertory cinemas including the Film Forum and Loew’s Jersey Theatre have hosted revival screenings of the film during which the “Emergo” gimmick has been recreated.)
Thanks in part to Castle’s gimmickry, the film was a huge success. Alfred Hitchcock took notice of the low-budget film’s performance at the box office and made his own low-budget horror film, which became the critically acclaimed hit Psycho (1960). Castle was himself a Hitchcock fan and would try to imitate Hitchcock’s work in later films such as Homicidal (1961).
Vincent Price as Frederick Loren
Carol Ohmart as Annabelle Loren
Richard Long as Lance Schroeder
Alan Marshal as Dr. David Trent
Carolyn Craig as Nora Manning
Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pritchard (credited as Elisha Cook)
Julie Mitchum as Ruth Bridgers
Leona Anderson as Mrs. Slydes
Howard Hoffman as Jonas Slydes
House on Haunted Hill was originally released theatrically by Allied Artists. Two major studios have released the film on home video in remastered versions. Warner Home Video released the film on DVD as a tie-in to the release of the 1999 remake. In 2005, the film was colorized by Legend Films. The color version was released on DVD the same year by 20th Century Fox. Extras prepared by Legend Films for the Fox DVD release included an audio commentary track by comedian Michael J. Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000, two versions of the trailer and a slideshow of images from the film’s original press book.
Johnny Legend released a 50th anniversary DVD containing a whole slew of extras such as both the original theatrical trailer and TV spots plus several William Castle and Vincent Price theatrical trailers, a Carol Ohmart profile and “golden age” TV shows starring Vincent Price. A DivX file of the colorized version with the commentary embedded is available as part of Nelson’s RiffTrax On Demand service. In 2009, a newly recorded commentary by Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett was released by RiffTrax. The RiffTrax team performed a Live RiffTrax of House on Haunted Hill on 28 October 2010.
House on Haunted Hill was released in a restored Blu-ray edition as part of Shout! Factory’s 2014 Vincent Price Collection II.
On 28 September 2011, the estate of William Castle released an annotated screenplay from House on Haunted Hill which is a copy of the shooting script along with Castle’s “margin notes” and the leather-bound style Castle used for his shooting script. This edition includes introductions from Joe Dante and Castle’s daughter Terry. It also features its own version of “Emergo” in which the skeleton appears to readers via a “flip page” method. Mondo Media re-released the film 2015 as part of his Mondo X Chiller series on 28 March 2015 in the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, New York.
The film received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has received a fresh 95% rating based on 22 reviews with an average rating of 7/10. Allmovie has praised the film retrospectively, writing, “Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”
The film was remade as the 1999 film House on Haunted Hill, which had a 2007 sequel titled Return to House on Haunted Hill. The 1999 film was released to middling reviews but was a box office success, while the 2007 sequel was direct-to-video and widely panned.
In 2017, another remake is in development and a prequel to the original film, which the latter will be written by Castle’s daughter Terry Castle.