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House on Haunted Hill

Fox // Unrated // September 6, 2005
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted September 13, 2005 | E-mail the Author


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.

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