HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL(1959)
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM CASTLE
STARRING VINCENT PRICE, CAROL OHMART, ELISHA COOK, JR., RICHARD LONG, CAROLYN CRAIG, ALAN MARSHAL, JULIE MITCHUM
NOT RATED (CONTAINS PG-13-LEVEL HORRIFIC IMAGES AND THEMATIC ELEMENTS.)
OVERALL: 4 OUT OF 4 STARS
In my mind, William Castle's 1959 cult-classic HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is the epitome of a Halloween movie.It's not especially scary; in fact, it's very campy and cheesy most of the time, but it's in such a successfully fun way, with all of the delicious showboating of morbidity that one could ask for in a Halloween movie night.With Vincent Price at his sinister best in the lead role, plus ghostly severed heads, skeletons dancing on strings, bubbling pools of acid, bodies swaying nooses and party favors handed out in miniature coffins, it is all the corny, macabre fun that could possibly be stuffed into a 75-minute movie.
The film tells of a night spent in the "only really haunted house in the world," for a "party" of sorts being hosted by eccentric and unscrupulous millionaire Frederick Loren (Price).Five strangers have been invited to spend the night in the mansion which Loren has rented, and each guest who stays the full night in the house will be awarded $10,000, and each of them need the money.There's the dashing test pilot, Lance Schroeder (Richard Long); the skeptical psychiatrist, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal); the damsel in distress, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), randomly picked from Loren's scores of employees; newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum) and finally, the house's owner, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a man previously driven nearly mad by the ghosts of the house.Co-hosting the party with Loren is his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), his fourth spouse (no one is really sure what became of the last three), who may have planned this "party" as an attempt by each other to finally be rid of the other.However, the house truly is haunted, and up to that night, seven people have died in it, all of them horribly gruesome deaths, including beheadings in which the heads were never found, but will reappear that night, and a man who dipped his wife in a vat of acid that still remains in the basement, and will factor into the night's proceedings.
Castle remains one of the greatest figures in the realm of b-movies, an infamous schlockmeister who sold his low-budget exploitation horror film with in-theater events and related gimmickry (Joe Dante payed homage to Castle in his 1993 film MATINEE, in which John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, whose movie MANT! features a live performer and rumble packs in the seats).Among some of his most famous gimmicks were stationing nurses and hearses outside theaters showing his movies, as well as offering life insurance policies in the lobbies, Percepto for the film THE TINGLER (1959; vibrating military surplus wing de-icers in the select seats simulated the film's monster, which attached to the human spinal cord, loose in the theater), and for the 1960 film, 13 GHOSTS, Illusion-O, in which "ghost viewers" were distributed to reveal the ghosts onscreen.When HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL showed in theaters, certain theaters screened the film in Emergo, which basically meant that at the appropriate moment, in which Price puppeteers a skeleton like a marionette, a plastic skeleton would fly over the audience in the theater on wires via a pulley system.That should give you a fair idea of what type of movie we're talking about here.
It's not a particularly scary movie, although there are a couple of surprisingly effective "jump scenes" (rare for films from that era), but anything that comes close to scary is the sort where it may startle you for infinitesimal moment, before yielding to laughs at the utter silliness of it all.A widely-derided R-rated remake was released in 1999, and while the original is a bit gory, especially for a 1959 film (obviously not produced to the standards of the Production Code), the worst parts are mitigated by the blackCONTAINS PG-13-LEVEL MORBID THEMATIC ELEMENTS AND IMAGES.)
OVERALL: 3.5 OUT OF 4 STARS
If you can't find HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to watch on Halloween night, the 1953 film HOUSE OF WAX will make a perfectly-adequate substitute.It's a spectacularly morbid yet campy Vincent Price classic, only enhanced by the hilariously gimmicky 3D effects (you can probably only find it in 2D, that's fine), which testify to its release as the first major studio film released in color 3D (two days early, a black-and-white 3D film, MAN IN THE DARK, was released by Columbia Pictures).
Price stars as an accomplished and extremely devoted wax sculptor, Professor Henry Jarrod, who exhibits his tasteful work in his wax museum in 1890s New York City.He specializes in historical recreations, such as his beloved masterpiece, a statue of Marie Antoinette, as well as figures of Joan of Arc, the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (a figure Jarrod considers with disdain) and others.His financial partner in this venture, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), is less impressed than others with Jarrod's sophisticated art, and pleads with him to branch out into the more gory and sensationalist exhibits that bring in the crowds at other wax museums.An artist to the core, Jarrod declines, but is willing to seek out another financial partner to buy Burke out.When he does find a buyer, it still won't pay off for another three months, which is longer than Burke is willing to wait, so he sets fire to the ultra-flammable museum with its paraffin wax contents, with intent to collect the insurance claim worth $25,000, but Jerrod tries to stop him and becomes maimed in the inferno.Months later, Burke is found dead, and not long after that, Jerrod returns with a newly-opened House of Wax, this time catering to the lurid demands of the public with a gruesome Chamber of Horrors.Meanwhile the bodies of murder victims have been disappearing from the morgue, and a young woman (Phyllis Kirk) becomes convinced that Jarrod's new Joan of Arc is actually her murdered friend, dipped in wax.
One of the most famous scenes in the film is when a paddleball-sporting barker, played by Reggie Rymal, stands front and center of the screen shouting the praises of the newly-opened House of Wax, whilst working stunts with his paddleballs at the screen, blatantly breaking the fourth wall for the sake of a 3D gimmick and even commenting on the lovely ladies and gentlemen out there and a man with some popcorn, which he then "aims" for.Only slightly more subtle is the line of can-can dancers held in an extended shot so their legs can kick right out at the screen.This all contributes to the campy charm already inherent to a movie about a disfigured murderer (in a black hat and cape, no less!) dipping his victims in paraffin wax for his wax museum.Funnily enough, the director, Andre Toth, was blind in one eye and so was unable to see the 3D effect which is the result of seeing two different images, one with each eye.Back in 1953, during the brief first 3D explosion, it was done by projecting one blue-tinted film and one red tinted film, each filmed simultaneously with side-by-side lenses.The red and blue lenses of the glasses lined up with the image of the same color on the screen, thus revealing only the image of the opposite color through the respective lens.As gimmicky as HOUSE OF WAX seems though, it actually is relatively subtle in comparison to other major 3D films of the era, making the technological aspect of it a little disappointing for some audiences.
MAYBE IT'S REAL, MAYBE IT'S JUST MAYBELLINE.
Henry Jarrod is the ultimate Vincent Price villain, a dastardly genius who murders for a most creative and lurid purpose, but also with tragic origins that lend sympathy to his dark cause, and Price's iconic voice is lent to great use when he leads a tour through his newly-open museum, making cheesy quips about each grisly exhibit they pass ("Henry VIII invented a short "cut" to divorce," he puns as they pass the beheading of Anne Boleyn).In spectacular climactic sequence, exposed with his severely-disfiguring burns, Price's Jarrod holds the rope as his lady victim lays strapped to a conveyer belt, waiting to tip the giant vat of boiling wax.It's cartoonishly morbid, which is in no way meant negatively.
Other notables in the cast are Carolyn Jones as nasally, giggling playgirl Cathy Gray, who went on to become known for playing the Gothic matriarch Morticia Addams in the television series The Addams Family, and future action star Charles Bronson (credited by his birth name, "Charles Buchinsky") as Jerrod's deaf-mute henchman, Igor.
Undoubtedly a product of its time, HOUSE OF WAX is obviously dated, but the outdated factors contribute to its campy charms.In 2005, it received the surest stamp of a horror classic; an abysmal R-rated remake.Do not watch that one.