Review of The House on Haunted Hill – 1959

Imagine this: you are seated in a modern movie theater, enjoying the final minutes of a horror film. The screen is huge and captivating. The speakers fill the auditorium with amazing surround sound. Suddenly, a plastic skeleton strung up on a wire floats over everyone’s head. WTF?

This is what happened when movie goers went to the theater to see William Castle’s “The House on Haunted Hill” back in 1959. Castle called this “Emergo” – a special effect set up to make it seem as if something emerges from the screen. This Emergo effect occurred during a pivotal scene where a skeleton rises up from a vat of acid. With the Emergo in place, the skeleton not only escapes from the vat but from the movie itself.

Maybe this stunt was more fitting in 1959 when theaters were low-tech, at least when compared to today’s cinematic powerhouses. Even then, Castle’s in-house skeleton received laughter, not to mention chunks of tossed popcorn and Milk Duds. But you have to admit, a gravity propelled skeleton on a downward angled wire sounds like a lot of fun!

This skeleton that rises out of the vat of acid at the film’s end – this is the whole point of the film. William Castle envisioned this and then later had someone figure out a story to support this “uplifting” skeleton scene!

Speaking of the plot, what is it? The themes and storylines are all too familiar to today’s horror film enthusiast. You’ve seen it all before in follow up films – a group of people must spend the night in a haunted house. There’s the “damsel in distress” that receives the brunt of the horrors, the young hero-type guy who comes to her aid, the skeptical psychiatrist who’s not quite young or handsome enough to be the hero type, the annoying scaredy-cat guy that needs to keep reminding the house guests (and viewers) of the possible ghosts that lurk just around the corner, and the middle age journalist lady who’s…I don’t know, she’s just there. Then there’s the household staff that resembles walking corpses. The guests continually separate – you know the drill.

To all this I say – put aside the modern day bias and try not to get bogged down with the familiar formula and just enjoy the film. Captivate yourselves with the fine performance from the villainous Vincent Price who plays Frederick Loren, the host of this party, who will pay each guest $10,000 for spending the night in the haunted house. Watch as he goes at it with his fourth wife Annabelle. Both want the other dead. There will be attempted murders – this is a mystery film set inside a haunted house. Allow yourselves to be taken in by the mystery. Because for God’s sake, you cannot write off a film that stars Vincent Price! Furthermore, anyone that is fond of horror films is prohibited from disliking a movie where a skeleton rises out of a vat of acid. This just is not allowed.

3 thoughts on “Review of The House on Haunted Hill – 1959

  1. Watched this with my son on TCM, no skeleton on wire, but it was so strange. Good in a bad way / Bad in a good way. 😀

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