William Castle, the director of The House on Haunted Hill is rather unique in film history. He is almost legendary (in a camp sort of way) less for the horror thrillers he made in the ’50s and ’60s than for the extremes used to promote them. The films are not awful; there is just nothing about them as films to equal the audacious promotion.
In House, millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) throw a party for some cash-starved characters in a haunted mansion where several murders have occurred. (The mansion’s exterior is the famous “Ennis-Brown” house designed by Frank Lloyd-Wright.) All will be locked away after midnight, unable to get out again until dawn. Loren promises any survivors of the evening ten thousand dollars in the morning. The long night includes plenty of shock effects and contrived suspense, including murders, severed heads, disappearing characters, inexplicable violence, thunder and lightning on cue, etc. All standard stuff, of course, but executed with professional, if not particularly distinctive skill.
What sets the film apart is how Castle promoted it in its initial theatrical run. There is a late scene, for example, when a skeleton threatens one of the characters. To reinforce the horror, Castle installed a real skeleton in the theater which dropped from the ceiling at the climactic moment. In another gimmicky thriller, The Tingler, he wired seats in the theater in order to be able to zap viewers at crucial moments. (It’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with such tricks in today’s litigious world.) Viewers of another Castle thriller, Homicidal were promised their money back if they had to leave in the final minutes because of the intensity of the suspense. And so on.
None of this proves the films themselves are necessarily tawdry, of course, only that Castle was more creative in the selling than the making. On the other hand, some of the effects in House (such as a rope that crawls menacingly across a room of its own volition) are executed with a care not lavished on the script. Test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), for example, gets bopped on the head early in the action, presumably by some otherworldly n’er-do-well, but that is never explained, any more than how, after disappearing behind one of those doors you should never open in a haunted house horror film, he reappears later unharmed and unfazed. Elisha Cook’s Watson Pritchard, who provides most of the exposition about the mansion’s violent past, always seems to be on the verge of getting munched, but is never around when the worst happens.
None of these gaping holes matter in the febrile world of horror, of course, but if a little more thought had been put into The House on Haunted Hill it could have provided a satisfying set of chills. Instead, it is just entertaining enough to emphasize its faults.