Here we have another case where I have seen the remake of something but never the original. I have seen both the 1999 House on Haunted Hill (which I remember thinking was ok, haven’t gone back it since release but I’m going to guess it doesn’t hold up all too well now) and its awful direct to DVD sequel Return to the House on Haunted Hill or whatever it was actually called. My only memory of the latter is that it did the gimmick where throughout the movie you can choose various different story paths which almost never changed the story in anything resembling a significant way. Oh and that it was terrible. I remember that as well. So even though I indulged in what are considered the lesser versions I had never watched the original 1959 version with Vincent Price until Scream Factory once again saved the day with a new box set containing this movie. So here we go!
Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren, who has invited a group of five strangers to a party he is having for his wife inside of a house that is supposedly haunted. The hook is that each person who survives the night will be given $10,000 when the sun rises. They are locked inside the house by the caretakers and the windows are barred up so it is physically impossible for any of them to leave until they are let out in the morning. Are there actually ghosts in the house? What is the deal with this millionaire guy? What is he up to? Why does the lady caretaker float around and stand behind people posed like a witch in order to frighten them? The last question isn’t answered (seriously what the hell is her deal) but finding out the solutions to the others makes for quite a fun ride.
I’m not all that familiar with Vincent Price’s work even though he is considered to be one of the greats in the history of horror. I have seen a few clips of him but I think this is the first movie of his I have watched in its entirety and it’s not hard to see why the guy made such a name for himself in the genre. He is really damn good. He has such a perfect voice for this; creepy and soothing. He has great presence and does a terrific job making Loren seem both charming and sinister. I look forward to diving into more of the box set and viewing some more of his work.
The film moves along at a good clip. Yes it is only 75 minutes long so it doesn’t have much of a choice but still, after some time introducing the characters it’s only a short while before the spooky stuff starts to go down. I’ve said before that sometimes I go into the older, black and white horror with an unfair bias that because it’s old, as a result it isn’t going to be scary. While House on Haunted Hill certainly isn’t terrifying, it is consistently effective. It contains a few successful jump scares and some genuinely creepy moments. Sure the special effects are quite primitive and obvious but it doesn’t take too much away from the picture, outside of perhaps a particularly rough looking skeleton in the later chunk of the film. Generally though, I was impressed with how spooky the movie could be, making great use of its location and some very well staged sequences.
The story however is what ended up being the most interesting aspect. There is a lot more going on here than simply having a group of people be stuck in a possibly haunted house. You are never quite sure what certain characters are up to. Peoples’ motivations and goals are often kept a mystery which allows for some suspense and a few plot twists as well. It all leads to a perfectly sinister ending to cap everything off.
I enjoyed House on Haunted Hill a lot more than I would have expected. It has a fast pace, some solid spookiness, and a host of interesting characters with Vincent Price often stealing the show. I still am a little interested in revisiting the 1999 remake but I can definitely see why people don’t compare it favourably to this one as this is easily the superior picture.