Vincent Price is scary. He is. I love him like a weird older uncle but the man is scary. He looks like he’s involved in some sort of high-class child pornography ring. I say that with all the love in my heart, but homie looked like he was up to something 24/7.
Which is probably why he was so amazing in House on Haunted Hill.
The opening scene of House On Haunted Hill showcases the characters and sets up the plot in the most eerie exposition dump of all time. From the narrator, who’s brilliantly constructed voice over dialogue is a harrowing as it is poignant, to the idiosyncratic supporting case who would seem almost more at home in a carnival side show.
The film’s premise, if you’re unfamiliar with either it or it’s 1990’s remake, involves a rich businessman throwing a birthday party for his wife by paying strangers boat loads of cash to spend one night locked inside a supposedly haunted mansion…which is conveniently located on ‘Haunted Hill’. See? The screenwriter was amazingly talented.
As you’d expect the various quirky party goes need the money to pay back various debts or get started on the next phase of their lives. And eventually we get to the obvious conclusion that a story like this is aiming for. The party guests start dying. Is it the house? It is really haunted? Is it good ol’ vinny price? Is one of the other partygoers? Who’s murdering these poor folks?
This is a fairly tried and true formula for Saturday matinee films, but there’s so much style and panache in House On Haunted Hill that you can’t help but be both terrified and utterly enraptured by the narrative. The film completely holds up, too. It’s scary for all the right reasons. Oh, sure there are some weird cultural elements every now and again and there’s a pretty strange special effect at the very end of the film, but the tensions, the story telling, and the ambiance are almost palpable.
Strangely, this film is almost as ubiquitous, if not more, than it’s remake. Somehow House on Haunted Hill has lapsed into public domain and is now packed in every box set of remotely spooky films. It’s always thrown into these mass collections of public domain films so that the marketers can put Vincent Price’s name on the cover. Which usually isn’t so awesome. Usually the public domain movies the Bella Lugosi and Christopher Lee made aren’t very good. And that’s why they’ve lapsed. Because no body liked them enough to renew the copyright. That’s not the case with House on Haunted Hill. I don’t know who screwed up or who lost a bet but the fact that this movie isn’t out on Criterion is a colossal injustice.
House on Haunted Hill is just as potent today as it was sixty years ago when it was first made. The film drips with atmosphere and intent. If only half of the torture porn/found footage films that are made today could be executed with the brilliance that this film is.