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Our candidate for the most entertaining haunted house thriller of all time? House on Haunted Hill (1958). You know the premise (it was recently remade in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen): An eccentric millionaire (Vincent Price) offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who dares to spend one night in a tomblike mansion that was once the site of multiple murders. The greedy participants are soon subjected to skeletal apparitions, blood dripping from the ceiling, a severed head, and a vat of acid in the cellar.
Produced and directed by William Castle, the king of gimmick horror films, House on Haunted Hill is the infamous one released in "Emergo" - a process where a giant plastic skeleton would sail over the audience at an appropriate moment in the film. In Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, Vincent Price recalled this unique effect: "The opening night of House on Haunted Hill, I was in a little theatre in Baltimore. In the movie, I reeled this skeleton in using a winch, and then there'd be a real skeleton in the theatre that would shoot over the audience. Well, I was in this theatre with a great many young people in it - and they panicked! And they knocked all the seats out of the theatre! They just took down the first five rows. I loved it!" Unfortunately, Turner Classic Movies won't be able to duplicate that effect on television but you won't miss it with all the other creepy things occurring at the title location.
According to producer-director William Castle in his autobiography, I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, he convinced Vincent Price to accept the role over coffee and some slices of pie at a small diner near the Samuel Goldwyn Studio one rainy evening. With Price confirmed as the gleefully malevolent host, production proceeded smoothly until the first sneak preview, which was attended by a middle-aged audience. Quickly realizing his mistake by the blase response of the audience, Castle made sure the next sneak preview was targeted for younger viewers. His instincts proved correct as their reaction to the film was wildly enthusiastic and most of his future efforts were geared toward the teenage market; 13 Ghosts (1960), 13 Frightened Girls (1963), and I Saw What You Did (1965) being prime examples.
Screenwriter Robb White recalled the making of House on Haunted Hill in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver: "House on Haunted Hill was shot mostly at Allied Artists. The exteriors were shot at Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House on Los Feliz, built during his Egyptian period. We were not allowed in there, but the guy who owned it let us look inside. And it was a weird house - the ceilings were 22 feet high! In one room there was a closet door that was 22 feet high and two feet wide with nothing in the closet to hold up clothes or anything else. The man who owned the house had furnished only one of the many rooms with a bed, a chair, a nightstand and, in the kitchen, a card table. He complained that the famous glass walls, which joined each other at the corner with only edges of the glass panes meeting, leaked when it rained and made a weird screaming noise when the wind blew. And there was nothing you could do about it! The swimming pool was three feet deep; ten feet wide; a hundred feet long; and in the middle was a statue of a horse! It was just god-damned ridiculous!" White, however, had a higher opinion of House on Haunted Hill: "I liked the whole thing, liked it right from the beginning. I like Carol Ohmart, I was the one that insisted on having her....I loved Vincent Price....I remember that I objected to hiring the guy who played the hero, Richard Long, because he had a scar on his mouth which made him look like he was smiling all the time, even in the grimmest parts. But he turned out to be a good actor and I liked him very much."
Producer/Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robb White
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction: Dave Milton
Music: Von Dexter
Principal Cast: Vincent Price (Frederick Loren), Carol Ohmart (Annabelle Loren), Richard Long (Lance Schroeder), Alan Marshal (Dr. David Trent), Carolyn Craig (Nora Manning), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Watson Pritchard), Julie Mitchum (Ruth Bridgers).
by Jeff Stafford