I know. I know Jennifer promised you a new start after Halloween. A non-Halloween post. Well let's pretend this is that. Look, haunted houses don't just function one day a year, you know. Ghosts don't operate on a timetable. And Vincent Price is suitable for all occasions: formal, festive, fierce, whatever is required. Also who doesn't love a classic black and white film, am I right? So please join me for a tour through "The House on Haunted Hill".
Oh. Should I say the thing about spoilers? Is there no expiration date on these? How much time has to pass before discussion no longer qualifies as a spoiler? Fine, yes, let's talk about that some other time. For now here's an all-encompassing alert: SPOILERS CONTAINED WITHIN. Lots of them. Juicy ones, too.
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The movie opens with blood-curdling screams and maniacal laughter with nothing onscreen. And then... Vincent Price! Disembodied heads giving narration! A dare to survive twelve hours in the most haunted house known to man!
Black and white movies are automatically more sinister. Hearses transporting guests to a party is a brilliant touch. Old movies have a sense of atmosphere and presentation. Thanks to Vincent Price’s disembodied head we now know, before the credits roll, exactly who the players are and what’s at stake: $10000 for surviving a night in the House on Haunted Hill. (And, as my brother-in-law would say, we have a title!)
Inside the house a door slams on its own. The swaying, tinkling chandelier crashes to the floor. And Vincent Price, who has been observing the reactions of the guests from an upper landing, slinks off to talk to his wife in the bedroom.
Vincent Price’s marriage is not happy. No wonder this - his fourth - wife is so bitter. They allude to the others being dead. And now they’re talking about the time she poisoned him and how she “wants it all”. Divine. Vincent Price and his wife are gloriously unpleasant.
The rules of engagement: the caretakers leave at midnight and lock them in the house, the windows are barred, there is no electricity and no phone, and there are no neighbors for miles. If anyone backs out before midnight they don’t stand to gain the $10000. Once the doors are locked they must survive the night in a house where four men and three women have already been killed for various reasons.
And now a tour of the house.
Oh creepy! Blood drips from a stain in the ceiling onto the female journalist’s hand.
The pretty young typist - Nora? - nearly falls into a vat of acid after the story of how a husband murdered his wife that way is told. Wait, what? Why is there a giant vat of acid in the floor?
One of the guests is a pilot and his name is Lance. Lance has disappeared behind a mysteriously locked door. When they retrieve him, he’s suffering from a crack on the skull that knocked him out. But how did his head get hit in a completely empty room?
An old woman just appeared behind Nora in an empty room. I’m guessing she’s a ghost but basically she just appeared, menacingly, and then sort of rolled out the door. Lance teases Nora when she tells him about the old woman. Because men laugh in the face of spirits?
I like Vincent Price’s wife Annabelle. She’s slinky, intelligent, and vaguely menacing. We find out, as she shares with Lance (Lance is every woman’s go-to confidante, apparently), that one of Vincent’s former wives disappeared and the other two died.
Vincent Price pulls Annabelle’s hair and casually threatens her - though very stylishly, as though that makes it better. (It does not.)
Head in a box! Head in a box! Nora is the one chosen to bear the brunt of the frights thus far.
It turns out the weird gliding old woman was not a ghost but the blind wife of the caretaker. So... no, that explains nothing.
All the men in this film are deeply unappealing. The psychiatrist is arch and dismissive. The pilot is kind of a foppish flirt. The drunk who knows all the ghost stories is paranoid. Vincent Price is some kind of rich sadist.
Dun dun dunnnn... the caretakers vanish before midnight and everyone is locked in without first being asked if they even want to stay.
Now Vincent opens tiny coffins to reveal a party favor for each guest: a loaded gun. It does seem like a very fabulously bad idea to give each guest locked in a haunted mansion a loaded gun. Old movies are so random! Let’s lock strangers in a known murder house... and put a large monetary reward on the line... and have ghost stories told... and then arm them!
Psychiatrist: “Nora would you like a sedative?”
I’m hard-pressed to decide who dies first but I’m going to dare to place my money on either Nora or Lance the pilot. Ginger’s money is on Lance.
There is a head hanging by its hair in Nora’s closet, which Lance finds because Nora’s not in her room. (Is it even worth asking why Lance is in her room?) She’s definitely the target of something. Lance runs around searching for her only to find a woman’s body hanging in the hallway. The dead woman is revealed to be... Annabelle? I did not see that one coming! Well done, movie. I guess all of her and Vincent’s loving bantering about killing one another wasn’t just witticism.
The requisite “one of us is a murderer” conversation is now happening in the living room. Minus the dead Annabelle and the hysterical Nora who is now hiding out upstairs. They hatch a plan to each lock themselves in their respective rooms for the next six hours on the premise that “the innocent have no reason to leave and the guilty will reveal themselves if they do”. They’re all armed. And now they’re all isolated. Nothing can go wrong.
Blood again drips onto the journalist’s hand from the same ceiling stain but of course the stain wasn’t in her room the first time it was seen.
Lance, who is of course ignoring the ‘stay in your room’ edict because he’s the dashing wannabe hero type, wanders down the hallway and gets himself trapped behind a secret panel.
A rope moves through Nora’s window of its own accord and wraps around her ankles. Out the window Annabelle is floating on the storm. The rope withdraws. Nora flees her room to find Annabelle once again hanging from the rafters. A hand reaches for her. This is all classic horror stuff but knowing the film is from 1959 makes it original and thus atmospherically creepy.
Oh - the self-playing organ! I’m glad ghosts pass down certain traditions amongst themselves just as the living do. A sense of continuity is important.
Revelation: the psychiatrist and Annabelle (who is alive) are lovers in cahoots and staged her hanging to drive Nora insane so she’ll kill Vincent Price. This kind of goes according to plan, too. At least, somebody’s skeleton rises up out of the acid vat when Annabelle goes looking for her psychiatrist lover (who is meant to be supervising the murder of Vincent).
Annabelle is pushed, screaming, into the acid vat by the skeleton. Who, without musculature of any kind, is walking around and able to single-handedly push a panicked woman off-balance. After she plunges to her death Vincent appears working a contraption that obviously operated as a marionette rig. So the skeleton is the psychiatrist’s. Vincent wins!
Wow. And now it’s over. An easy breezy hour and fifteen minutes!
But... okay, does that explain the moving blood stain? Or why there’s an acid vat just sitting around in the house? Or why the paranoid drunk and journalist characters were even there? Or how Lance escaped from behind the secret panel? Or how Annabelle floated outside Nora’s window? Or how the psychiatrist and Annabelle knew that disembodied heads and Annabelle’s death would drive Nora insane? Or why the psychiatrist offered Nora a sedative if the entire point of the evening was to drive her to kill Vincent? Or how Vincent had time to rig a complicated ceiling-mounted skeleton marionette? Or why Vincent gave everybody guns loaded with blanks? Or... just, basically, anything?
In the 'who dies first' pool, both Ginger and I lost. I will say this: I'd watch Vincent Price wear the hell out of a suit and pronounce things well any day. I don't actually require a plot to enjoy that. Which is good because as plots go, "The House on Haunted Hill" has only the loosest suggestion of one. If I were to sum it up for a wiki it would read "A man and his wife lock themselves in competition in a haunted house to see who can kill the other off first using only the paranoia of a guest" which, actually, upon reflection, is a brilliant plot. I take it all back. (Except questioning the acid vat.) This film is actually some kind of warped genius.
- Corinne Simpson