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Public Domain Horror: ‘House On Haunted Hill’ (1959)

Time to sit back and enjoy another public domain classic, this time starring none other than the master of fear himself, Vincent Price. From its title alone, ‘House On Haunted Hill’ sounds like the very definition of cliche, but when the film first hit movie theaters in 1959 it was so successful that it not only helped to reinvigorate mainstream interest in the then ailing horror genre, but also was reputedly an influential factor in Alfred Hitchcock’s decision to make his own low-budget chiller masterpiece ‘Psycho’ the following year.

The success of ‘House On Haunted Hill’ was in no small part due to director William Castle’s maverick genius and shrewd use of in-house gimmicks and publicity stunts. The title of Castle’s (highly recommended) autobiography tells you all you need to know about his philosophy towards presenting his work to an audience: “Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America”! Whilst trickery such as using live actors during film showings was not an entirely new concept – use of audience-plant ‘fainters’, ambulances and fake medical teams had been used at screenings during Universal’s classic horror cycle – Castle took these ideas to the extreme.

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Far from being a passive experience, going to these films became a chaotic white-knuckle ride, whether it meant b acking out the room and telling the screaming audience that a terrifying but tiny parasitic creature was loose among them, (simulated by electric buzzers randomly being activated on patron’s seats) in the case of ‘The Tingler’, or turning the theater itself into a haunted house complete with a floating skeleton in the case of ‘House On Haunted Hill’. It’s certainly a shame that this level of showmanship seems to be a thing of the past as movie-makers of all stripes continue to be consumed by the need to be taken seriously, often at the expense of fun and pure entertainment. I should note however that there have been some revival screenings of these films in recent years complete with props and gimmicks, though such events are few and far between.

You may be wondering then whether ‘House On Haunted Hill’ is a movie that happened to be presented with a gimmick, or a gimmick that happened to be presented as a movie. More importantly is the film strong enough to stand up to being viewed unaugmented 55 years after its initial viewing? The answer, thankfully is yes. With its feverish, claustrophobic atmosphere, timeless premise, surprisingly self-aware sense of humor and wonderfully entertaining performances (Vincent is, naturally, on top form) it is among the most gripping and enjoyable films of its era.

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I have to confess to having a soft-spot for any yarn that uses the whims of an ‘eccentric millionaire’ to justify a contrived set-up, and sure enough Price’s character of Frederick Loren fits the bill, having rented a haunted house ostensibly to throw a party for his much maligned wife (Carol Ohmart) and five guests of various professions. Loren’s game is simple: once the guests have settled in and been debriefed, all exits from the house will be sealed, each guest having been equipped with a pistol for protection. The guests must then merely survive the night within the house’s confines to be rewarded with the impressive sum of $10,000 each. What could possibly go wrong?

Whether you’ve never seen ‘House On Haunted Hill’, only caught the inevitably inferior (though not entirely terrible) 1999 remake or you’re already a well-seasoned fan of the original, an evening with Vincent Price in a haunted house is something no horror fan worth their salt should turn down. You can watch the entire movie for free via the link below, and be sure to let me know your thoughts on the movie or suggestions for other Public Domain classics in the comments.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btXN9yc2HQg