The House on Haunted Hill

Year: 1959
Production Co: William Castle Productions
Director: William Castle
Producer: William Castle
Writer: Robb White
Cast: Vincent Price

You know when you watch a movie and then see it again years later and appreciate it from a completely new viewpoint? Here's an extreme version. I was about five or six when I watched a horror movie with my brother and cousin on TV one night. In fact, I don't even remember if I watched the whole film, because only three images remain in my mind. But they're the oldest memories of watching any movie that still exist somewhere in my neural hardware.

In one, a damsel in distress is standing against an open door, screaming and holding her hands up in the classic useless-woman-in-50s-horror-movie style when a gnarled hand comes around the edge of the door to try and grab her.

In another, the ghostly outline of an old, white haired woman appears in a doorway across a dark room. In the last one, someone opens a door and the same woman – an old, ugly, horrific-looking crone – is revealed behind the door with a very dramatic crashing of horn music.

In fact, the last image might be from a different film – it turns out the heroine walks backwards and the old woman is standing behind her. But thirty-plus years will do that to memories, which is how long it was before I watched this film again in its entirety, with no idea it was the one I'd remembered such horrific images from all those years ago.

Of course now, from a position of adulthood and after a few decades of modern horror where you can see exploding guts and beheadings with gay abandon, the 'scares' in horror maestro William Castle's classic are mostly laughable, but to appreciate the aesthetic in horror films in the mid 20th century, this movie should be top of your list. Just remember you're never getting the full experience on DVD. When the skeleton walks out of the acid bath to menace the wife of the party host during the climax, theatres were rigged to let loose a plastic skeleton to fly along a wire over the heads of moviegoers.

A collection of strangers is invited to a party late one night given by a reclusive millionaire, Frederick Loren (Price). For trivia hounds, the exteriors were shot at Ennis house, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building of elaborately carved brickwork that nestles in the Los Feliz Hills and looks over Los Angeles (it's a treat to see on Google Street View).

The only thing they all have in common is that they all need money, and their slimy host promises to pay them each $10,000 if they can stay until the house staff re-open the doors the next morning, locking them all in.

Narratively, it's a bit of a mess. There is indeed a conspiracy that links all the guests and their host, and it involves his pretty wife and their cordial but hateful marriage. The effects are so hammy you start to wonder if you're supposed to realise the ghosts are a ruse while the cast have no idea, and you can see every tired horror movie trope ('let's split up') there ever was.

Price is in his element, the ringmaster of a macabre circus like always. In this case he's surrounded by lacklustre bit players, and whether it's a pizza and videos night of cheesy old school horror or your education about the ultimate inspiration for every ghost story to come, it's a must see.

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