Hello, Persephoneers! Welcome to our third week of Halloween-themed movie reviews that coincide with Slay Belle’s 31 Days of Halloween! This week’s film is the classic The House on Haunted Hill, released in 1959, and starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Elisha Cook, and Carolyn Craig.
Millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) has invited five people to a party of sorts at a supposedly haunted house he has rented. He challenges his five guests to stay the entire night in his house. The prize for lasting the entire night is $10,000. The night’s guests include Lance Schroeder, a test pilot; journalist Ruth Bridgers; Watson Pritchard (Cook), who owns the house; Dr. David Trent, a psychiatrist; and Nora Manning (Craig), an employee at one of Loren’s companies. Loren’s fourth wife, Annabelle (Ohmart), is also present. After each guest arrives in a funeral hearse, Loren apprises them of the rules and gives them each a .45-caliber handgun for safety. Annabelle warns the guests that her husband is psychotic and that the night won’t end well. The guests become very wary of him.
As the night passes, Nora keeps seeing ghosts and visions and grows very frightened. She is convinced that Loren wants to kill her. Winston himself is convinced the house is haunted and thinks that the ghosts in the house are malevolent and out to kill the guests. It is Nora who discovers the body of Annabelle, who hangs herself during the night, and soon Nora sees Annabelle’s ghost. When Nora tells Lance about what she saw, he in turn tells her about how someone tried to attack him in the basement and that he is sure that his attacker was human.
When Dr. Trent goes to tend to Annabelle’s body in one of the bedrooms, it’s revealed that she’s alive and that she faked her death. She and Dr. Trent, who is her lover, have conspired to frighten Nora so much and drive her to such hysterics that she shoots Loren. Nora does shoot Loren in the basement when she sees him approaching her with a gun. After she runs away, Dr. Trent slinks into the room to push Loren’s body into a vat of acid that has been set up as part of the evening’s entertainment. The lights suddenly go out, and a struggle ensues, ending with a splash; someone has fallen into the vat of acid.
Annabelle, having heard the gunshot, goes down to the basement to see whether or not her husband is dead. What she sees is truly astounding: A skeleton rises from the vat of acid, and what appears to be the ghost of Loren calls for her. Annabelle tries to flee and ends up falling into the vat of acid, too. The skeleton is shown to merely be a puppet on a wire, and Loren emerges from a corner of the basement as the other guests, who have heard the gunshot, rush down to see what happened. Nora is shocked to see that Loren is still alive, but he reassures her and the other guests that he knew that Annabelle and Dr. Trent were conspiring to kill him, and that he carried out his own plan to get rid of them. Watson is convinced that Annabelle’s and Dr. Trent’s ghosts will haunt the house, too, and that they will come for him, and then, addressing the audience by looking into the camera, he warns, “And then they’ll come for you!”
The House on Haunted Hill incorporates many of the tropes of 1950s horror films, including the resourceful hero, the damsel in distress, the scientist who can rationally explain everything, and the unknown quantity that is the supernatural. However, it also examines the extent to which belief can affect one’s supernatural experiences. Nora becomes so convinced that the house is haunted that she believes Annabelle is actually a ghost and somehow the victim of Loren’s madness. It’s Nora’s frayed nerves and the suspicions that Annabelle and Dr. Trent have carefully planted in the guests’ minds that drive her to shoot Loren.
The film also examines which is more malevolent: the superantural or human beings themselves. There is the threat of meeting death at the hands of the house’s resident ghosts, but it’s ironic that Loren gives the guests pistols, which would only protect someone from a more corporeal attacker. Likewise, Annabelle and Dr. Trent meet their deaths as a result of their conspiring to kill Loren. In turn, Loren turns the tables on them and their ruse by using their fear of the supernatural against them, ultimately foiling their plan and ending their lives. He states at the end that he will let the law decide whether or not he is guility or not of their deaths. He is left a morally ambiguous figure who has killed his wife and her lover out of spite and avoided his own murder at their hands. It’s left up to the audience to decide whether or not the deaths were murder or self-defense.
The film is currently available on Netflix Instant and through their DVD service. There is also a Rifftrax version of it available, though the campiness is a little much.