Fear Makes People Do Amazing Things: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Having only seen the remake to this classic Vincent Price work prior to viewing it yesterday, I can say with some level of certainty that it was one of the creepiest and down right scariest movies I had ever encountered.  The original, while not scary by contemporary standards exists as something far more bizarre and certainly more socially keen than its remake and I am to some degree unaware of a film that has more plot twists, counter reveals and sheer thrill than this 1959 masterpiece.  House on Haunted Hill is not necessarily a gory film, although it does have some moments of grotesqueness, nor is it a purely jump scare film, but it does have a few shockers, one in particular that reveals absolutely nothing to be scared of, perhaps a great statement on the nature of fear.  Ultimately, House on Haunted Hill exists as a horror film about human psychology and to what extent people will attack one another in the name of survival, greed and distrust.  A surprisingly graphic film for the era, House on Haunted Hill does suffer from some problematic moments, whether it be incessant use of the term hysteria or the blatant whiteness of the film, however, we should as always consider the historical time in which the films were created and critiques should be appropriated as such.  In the end House on Haunted Hill is a meritorious classic of the genre and deserved of all the praise it has gained and is certainly justified in being place on many a short list of the best horror movies ever.

The film delivers its plot from the onset, after some rather intense set of screams on moans set against a black screen.  We are introduced to a man named Watson Prichard (Elisha Cook Jr.) who explains that many member of his family had died while staying at the aptly named House on Haunted Hill and the horrors that exist as a result.  After this floating head we are shown Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) a millionaire who explains that he is throwing a scary party, a suggestion by his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), in which he will pay the attendees $10,000 to stay a night at the house, and more importantly survive.  The group includes Lance (Richard Long) a pilot, a alcoholic gambling woman named Ruth (Julie Mitchum), a snobbish psychologist named Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal) and a young typist named Nora (Carolyn Craig).  As they enter the house it is revealed that the group is simply put together because they need money, even drawing the spooked Watson back to the house.  After some bickering between Frederick and Annabelle, it is decided that Frederick will join the party, while Annabelle hides.  At this point things go terribly awry whether they be ghastly apparitions or heads stuffed into suitcases it becomes quite clear that nobody is safe, not even the planners of the party.  Furthermore, it is quickly realized that everybody is engaged in multiple layers of deception, whether it be spousal or competitive the layers of lies are nearly incomprehensible.  In fact, only Nora and Lance appear to be morally pure and perhaps this is why they are some of the few to survive the whole ordeal.  However, the film ends suggesting that the horrors that occur within the house are doomed to repeat themselves as long as individuals are greedy and deceptive.

The perfection of House on Haunted Hill exists as a keen and timeless commentary on everything terrible in contemporary society.  It is no surprise that when the film was remade the price to stay a night was a million bucks, greed and the demand for money has only worsened.  Furthermore, the film's commentary on marriage for money is pertinent in that the couple continually attempts to kill one another throughout the film and while domestic abuse does occur, it is certainly more a metaphor on the fears of divorce, something that is certainly more relevant as decades pass.  Finally, and perhaps most problematically,  the films preoccupation with hysteria and an assumption that women are emotionally unstable is ignorant.  Feminist epistemology has acutely pointed to the duality of emotion and rationality, suggesting that both come from inherent observations and are grounded in their ability to analyze situations.  This is not acknowledged in the movie, despite it being quite clear that every concern Nora expresses in a panicked state is grounded in actual occurrences, yet individuals like Dr. Trent dismiss her claims because they are not based in factual evidence and are clearly a result of hysterical behavior.  Yet, when Watson waxes poetic about ghosts and murder in detail they blame it on his drunken stupor, as though to suggest in all other contexts he is a rational and respectable man.  In the end, Nora was right about her visions and not hysterical and while her reactions were emotive they were also rational, something the film could have acknowledged but manages to pass over with little concern whatsoever.

Key Scene:  The return to the acid pit has a suspenseful and for the era rather scary reveal.

This is a centerpiece in the history of horror cinema and jams a whole lot into a 75 minute film.  I cannot recommend the work enough and am glad to have seen it, and the best news is that it is watch instantly on Netflix as well as Hulu, although the later appears to be in color, making no excuses for overlooking the work.  Also sorry for a rather vague plot description, but the reveals and counter reveals are too good to be spoiled in a blog post.

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