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DVD SAVANT

House on Haunted Hill


House on Haunted Hill
Key (Fox)
1959 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame + the same colorized / 75 min. / Street Date 2005 / 9.98
Starring Vincent Price, Carolyn Craig, Richard Long, Elisha Cook Jr., Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal, Julie Mitchum
Cinematography Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction David Milton
Film Editor Roy Livingston
Original Music Von Dexter, Richard Loring
Written by Robb White
Produced and Directed by William Castle

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Here's another Legend Films colorization job sneaking in under the Fox Home Video banner. William Castle's haunted house classic is also presented in a B&W version, although hidden away in a special features menu. The 9.98 price tag gets the purchaser quite a bit for his cash outlay; people actually interested in the movie would do better to stick to Warners' earlier DVD, which is presented in a superior enhanced 16:9 format.

Synopsis:

Millionaire Frederick Loren and his wife Annabelle (Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart) have only contempt for one another; she has already tried to poison him once. He bows to her wishes and holds her birthday party in a rented and supposedly haunted house. Facetiously claiming to have no friends, Loren invites five strangers, all of whom are primarily interested in the upscale prize promised those who 'survive' the night: $10,000. The house's owner Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) knows the history of the murders in the mansion, while office worker Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) and gossip columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) claim to be there for the cash, the thrill, or scientific curiosity. Loren's shindig is a bumpy ride from the start. Steel shutters close the house off at midnight, Loren gives out .45 automatic guns (in little coffins) as party favors, and the seven nervous partygoers begin a night of suicide, blood dripping from ceilings, disappearing severed heads, and phantom figures. When Watson shows them the previous owner's murderous acid pit in the basement, nobody seems to guess the #1 rule of gruesome torture devices: An acid pit seen is an acid pit that will be used!

With House on Haunted Hill William Castle embarked on a fun, unpretentious updating of The Cat and the Canary- style thrillers, only he didn't bother with making the mystery all that important. Vincent Price's suave millionaire already knows his wife is out to get him, and the evening's 'fun' is an unbroken ride on a Spook House train that proceeds from one thrill to another without too much emphasis on credibility or logic. Loren's guests are uncommonly credulous when confronted with haunted-house gimmicks that they must have remembered from Halloweens long past, but they take them seriously enough when one of their number is found hanged, and another receives a sharp knock on the noggin. The place isn't just haunted - somebody or some thing may be out to kill them.

Savant hasn't seen the recent remake, but besides betting that it's cast younger and more attractively, I'll bet it expects to be taken more seriously and critcizes its characters more. Robb White was the writer/co-creator of Castle's better films, and he softens most of the characters. The sharp-tongued gossip columnist is really quite sweet and the 'teen surrogate' couple are adventures and innocently vulnerable. The rest have a sense of humor about the situation except for poor Elisha Cook Jr., who is soon drunk and predicting dire doom for all. Since it's Elisha Cook, everyone's favorite loser from the 1940s, his moaning and moping are endearing.

Finally, Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby) make a well-matched couple of smoothies. He obviously still feels something for her while she doesn't try to hide her wish that he were six feet under. Price is charming and brooding as well, an interesting mix that keeps the silly plot balanced from one unlikely event to the next. He doesn't send the character up, something that he wouldn't doing for years yet. In Castle's shockers and his non-comedy roles for Roger Corman, Vincent Price for the most part played things straight. He may chortle and snicker a bit, but he doesn't wink at the audience.

Castle's approach to haunted house thrills is straightforward and consistent. Only a few scattered moments reach for ethereal effects, provided mostly by Von Dexter's score and a quick exterior shoot of the Ennis Wright house atop a very un-haunted old-money residential hill in Los Feliz.  1 Robb White's idea of staging an unexpected suicide early on undermines our ability to guess what will happen, to the extent that even some of the cornier scares are enjoyably tense.

Castle's gimmick on this one was called 'Emergo', and it consisted simply of a skeleton prop that flew over the heads of the audience on wires at a key moment of the film. It's existence was passed around by readers of Famous Monsters of Filmland; I've never met anyone who ever saw it in use.

The movie has one EXCELLENT jolt that's simplicity itself, involving our misdirected attention and some really good timing. Modern horror films have either forgotten how to create Boo! moments, or modern producers figure that surprises of that kind will be ruined by spoilers or dissipated by the home video viewing experience, with people talking through scenes and taking cell phone calls. If it isn't still possible to shake an audience up without showing someone cut in half or spewing innards across the screen, horror films should give up.

House on Haunted Hill is good, silly fun that will only give chills to the very young, a good scare show for those not yet ready for post-60s blood and guts.


'Key Video's DVD of House on Haunted Hill is formatted both on the package and in the screen menus as a Fox release, which it really seems to be. The main colorized feature has an awful lot of mostly colorless material, although some interior shots are interesting to watch. People tend to have orange heads. The image is softer and less defined than the B&W version found in the special features menu, along with a trailer and an animated look at some of the original pressbook details.

The B&W version is fine except that it's not 16:9 enhanced. This not only leaves a lot of head and foot room on the feature, it opens up compositions so that the 'scary' content hasn't the impact that it should.

Both versions can be watched with a comedy track by Mike Nelson of the old MST3K cable show. His running commentary boils down mostly to snide comments about the characters, all negative and basically there for cheap sex jokes, especially whenever Richard Long gets near Carolyn Craig.

Legend's packaging this time around is very handsomely laid out, all except for their continuing habit of combining their colorization production credits with the original credits for the film, to make it look like they made the movie. Very, very bad form.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, House on Haunted Hill rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: B&W: Good -, Colorized Fair ++
Sound: Good
Supplements: Pressbook, Trailer, Mike Nelson comedy commentary track
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2005


Footnote:

1. Should you ever visit LA, the Ennis-Wright house is easy to see on a clear day from Vermont Avenue approaching Los Feliz Blvd. It's this giant sandstone structure with a great view but only a few windows. Like several other LA Frank Lloyd Wright constructions, it's made of custom-cast bricks and has been allowed to deteriorate over the years. Don't even try to drive up to it, as the residents give looky-loos a hard time in the crowded, twisty hillside streets.
Return

2. Two Savant readers verify the EMERGO experience! (9.14.05): Hi Glenn ! In your review of House on Haunted Hill today, you said that you had never met anyone who had actually seen the skeleton gimmick in action. Well, you and I have never met, but I saw the film on the day it opened at the Carolina Theater in Charlotte, NC in 1959. At the appropriate moment in the movie when the skeleton has chased Frederick Loren's wife into the acid vat, the house lights were all turned off and, while on the film the camera does a long, empty left to right pan of the cellar, a luminous skeleton emerged from the stage area on the left side of the screen and rode a wire over the heads of the screaming kids all the way to the projection booth, and was then retracted to the stage just as Vincent Price reeled in the one on the film. It was a wonderful moment in my childhood that I have never forgotten. All my best regards -- M.H.Faris, Monroe, NC

Regarding your review, here is my recollection of Emergo. In 1958, when I was still a teenager, I went to see House on Haunted Hill at a theater in Buffalo, NY. I went alone, for the sole purpose of finding out what Emergo was (I guess I was big on gimmicks, because I also went to many of the 3-D movies that came out a few years earlier).
As I waited for House on Haunted Hill to start, I noticed a small black booth that had been mounted by one end of the screen. The booth was painted black, with a black curtain on the front. From the booth, a thin wire could be seen leading up to the opposite end of the balcony (I was seated downstairs).
When the big scene began and Vincent Price began cranking, a skeleton emerged from the booth and slowly climbed up the wire toward the balcony. Immediately, all the teenage girls in the audience (and some of the boys) began screaming in mock horror. The skeleton was bright against the darkness of the theater, so it must have been illuminated (possibly by a spotlight). The movement of the skeleton was synchronized with the action on the screen, making it look like Vincent was actually controlling the skeleton in the theater. No images of the skeleton appeared on the screen while it was hovering over the audience, so there must have been a special print of the movie that was only used in Emergo theaters.
The skeleton moved almost all the way up to the balcony (but out of reach of any patrons), then stopped, then slowly descended back down and into the booth. At that point, the skeleton appeared onscreen as Vincent cranked it in. Watching the scene today on DVD, it seems much shorter, with only one shot of Vincent cranking, so I suspect that the Emergo prints were specially edited to accommodate the slow movement of the skeleton.
At the time, I thought that Emergo was little more than goofy fun, but it must have made a strong impression on my teenage mind, because I can still remember it in vivid detail, almost 50 years later.
Emergo was recently re-created at a special screening of House on Haunted Hill in Philadelphia. Check This Link for details (it's a long page -- scroll about halfway down) -- William C. Wind Lakewood, Colorado .




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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