As revered as The House On Haunted Hill (the original, not the crap remake) may be, you know that Vincent Price and William Castle both had great senses of humor and probably would have got a kick out of having one of their finest moments given the Rifftrax treatment. For those not hip to what Rifftrax is all about, it's basically Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Mystery Science Theater 3000 doing their quirky and often times very funny commentary over top of the movie, this time without the aid of interweaving skits and characters. This gives you the illusion that you're sitting around watching a cheap horror movie with a bunch of pals. Up until recently, Nelson and company have been selling the commentary tracks as downloads off of their website, but now they're starting to put out DVD releases.
For the unlucky few who haven't had the chance to enjoy one of the finest horror/black comedy films ever made...
Vincent Price plays a strange wealthy man named Frederick Loren who, along with his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), offers five seemingly unrelated strangers $10,000 each if they can spend an entire night in a creaky old house. This isn't just a normal old house, however, as it's been the site of seven separate murders. The five people that Frederick selects, all of whom arrive to the house in a hearse, are a pilot named Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), a newspaper writer named Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), the house's owner Watson Prichard (Elisha Cook Jr.), a psychiatrist named Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) and one of Loren's employees, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig). Each invitee is given a pistol and at midnight, the doors are locked meaning that no one can get in our out until morning breaks. Annabelle warns all involved that her husband is quite mad, but there's no way they can contact any one outside the house as there's no electricity and no phone connection.
Beautifully shot, the black and white cinematography makes the most of the shadows in the house where the vast majority of the film is set. The house, itself a central character in the film in many ways, has an odd, eerie atmosphere to it that gives the film a welcome ambience that the later big budget remake could never hope to recapture. Castle moves the action at a brisk pace, taking just enough time with the set up before getting on with the show, while the script from writer Robb White (who also wrote The Tingler, 13 Ghosts and Homicidal for Castle) gives the cast plenty to work with in terms of clever dialogue and fun plot twists.
Speaking of the cast, it probably goes without saying that Vincent Price really does steal the show here. He's got that suave sense of menace going on that only he could bring to a role. At times both sinister and charming, it's a part that's perfect for his style and he makes the most of it. Supporting performances from Julie Mitchum (Robert Mitchum's sister) and the beautiful Carol Ohmart are lots of fun as is the dashing and more heroic work from leading man Richard Long. Alan Marshal brings brains to the group while Elisha Cook Jr.'s hard drinking property owner rounds things out nicely making for a diverse group of party goers who each want the money but trust no one.
At a quick seventy-five minutes, the film is pretty lean and wastes no time at all getting right to the meat of the story. Once we're there, a few memorable set pieces and loads of atmosphere keep us entertained throughout. The film has a bit of a reputation for being campy but there are a couple of truly creepy moments in the film that will stick with you. The low budget shines through sometimes but Castle and company do a really rock solid job with this film, a classic that never fails to entertain.
So the movie is great, right? Right. So what about the Rifftrax commentary? It's pretty decent, actually. While at times it feels very loose and improvised, it's more consistent, than, say, their recent Night Of The Living Dead track and at times the friendly barbs tossed at the film are dead on. Maybe The House On Haunted Hill is a bit of an easy target, for as good as it is, it's equally goofy and it knows it, but the three commentators are having a good time with this material and it can be infectious in those moments where they really hit their stride. As is always the case with material like this, some gags work much better than others and some feel more natural while others a bit forced, but by and large this is a good effort and consistently funny enough to make it worthwhile even for casual fans. The poke fun at the obvious, the flying skeleton and the acid pit of course, but also the more subtle parts of the movie that, once pointed out for you, really are a little odd but they never get mean spirited. There's an affection for the material that periodically shines through here, as buried behind goofy jokes as it may be, and that's when these guys are at their best.
The 1.33.1 fullframe interlaced transfer on this DVD isn't going to wows you. The picture looks pretty okay here, but it's cropped from its original 1.66.1 widescreen aspect ratio. Contrast is a little hot in some scenes but print damage is minimal as is edge enhancement and mpeg compression. Detail is a little smeary in some scenes but for the most part the image is okay here, but it should have and could have been much better.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono, which appears here without any alternate language dubs or subtitle options of any kind, has a few audible pops here and there and a drop out or two but for the most part is quite serviceable. The dialogue is generally pretty easy to understand and follow and the levels are properly balanced. There is some minor background hiss present in some spots but it isn't overpowering. It should be noted, however, that as far as the commentary is concerned, there are no volume fluctuations where they should be. This means that the commentators will, at times, speak over the actors at the same volume, and this can lead to a few spots where it sounds a bit jumbled. This isn't a constant problem, but it does happen often enough that it should be mentioned.
The disc is barebones save for a static menu though it does allow you to watch the movie with or without the Rifftrax commentary. Inside the keepcase packaging is a coupon that gives you a free download from the Rifftrax website for Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.
The House On Haunted Hill is a whole lot of fun with or without the Rifftrax commentary, but the track is a good one and the disc comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.