Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Night of Terror #30: 'House on Haunted Hill'

For the penultimate Night of Terror for 2013, I ended up with a classic by one of my very favorite directors, William Castle. My usual line on Castle is that his best movies have aged into pop-art masterpieces, with his showboating gimmickry creating cinematic experiences that you simply can't get anywhere else. But as I watched House on Haunted Hill for the 2nd or 3rd time, I was struck by how that really isn't the case with this, even though it's probably his most popular movie.

That's because Castle's gimmick for this one, Emergo - involving a plastic skeleton being made to fly over the audience during a key sequence, doesn't really manifest itself onscreen in any way. So there's none of the fabulous fourth-wall collisions that The Tingler has (at least not apart the very beginning and end), the faux-interactivity of Mr. Sardonicus, or the carnival-like "Fright Break" of Homicidal.

And yet I still count this as a solid if not exemplary entry in Castle's filmography. It's probably in large part due to its top-notch "old dark house" atmosphere that relies pretty much entirely on stagebound effects, the kind you might see in an actual past-its-prime haunted house. And it's also thanks to the cast, which has its share of ringers including not just Vincent Price (clearly having a ball with his somewhat inscrutable character), but also Elisha Cook Jr. and Julie Mitchum.

Anyways, House on Haunted Hill is pretty darn close to being a quintessential Halloween movie, for its interest in spooks jumping out and scaring you before vanishing, and its commitment to old-school shocks and a plot in which only the bad guys get killed.

One other thing I wanted to note - might this be a little bit of an autobiographical movie on Castle's part? I know nothing of his personal life at the time, but I did notice some parallels between Vincent Price's ghoulish sense of humor (those tiny coffins, for one) and the one Castle either had or pretended to have. Food for thought.

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