Film directors who work in the Horror genre are used to working with limited resources. There are many reasons for this, of course, too numerous to expound on here, but this fact is indisputable; the Horror genre remains the one with the most independent low-budget films out there. One of the earliest pioneers of low budget Horror was William Castle, who wrote, produced, directed, and even acted in over 50 films in his long, colorful career. One of his most successful and most famous films was 1959’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
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Following the conventions of the classic “Old Dark House” stories (in which a group of strangers are brought to an old, haunted house and must survive the night) HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL stars Vincent Price as the eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren - who hosts a haunted-house party at the behest of his fourth wife, Annabelle. The guests are all strangers to each other, but all have been offered $10,000 each if they can survive one night in the house. At midnight the party begins as the guests are locked in with no way out and, ominously, each given a gun.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL snares us right away, with foreboding narration by Price and his co-star, Elisha Cook. As hearses pull up to Loren’s mansion, we see a striking Mayan-style palace looming in the darkness. Once inside, the guests are subjected to various terrors, and the film shifts from one set-piece to another as the story unfolds. Though clumsily written and sometimes nonsensical, the film never slackens its pace as the true villain is revealed.
However, William Castle was best known at the time for his gimmicks. Castle was a showman through and through, and many of his films would have little ‘extras’ attached. For example, for his film MACABRE, he stationed nurses and hearses outside the theater “just in case”. Some of his other gimmicks were “Percepto!” (a vibrating seat effect for THE TINGER) and “Illusion-o!” (a ghost-viewer for 13 GHOSTS). For HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle created “Emergo!”; where at a certain time in the story, a skeleton would emerge out of a box and float over the audience. Audiences ate it up and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was a great success.
One of the most wonderful of the effects HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL had on its audience was on a fellow filmmaker. Alfred Hitchcock, after enjoying the film and noticing its remarkable performance at the box office, decided to venture into the world of low-budget Horror himself. The very next year, Hitchcock released PSYCHO. Yes, if not for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, we might not have had PSYCHO. Thank you very much, William Castle!!
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL fun facts - The original copyright holders neglected to renew. Consequently, this film is now in the public domain.
The house used for the exteriors is the Ennis Brown house and it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is located in Los Feliz, a neighborhood just north of Los Angeles. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it remains a popular shooting location to this day.
Several theaters dropped the “Emergo” effect after incidents involving local boys using slingshots to try and bring the floating skeleton down.
Annabelle Loren - “You know, of course, that I‘m his fourth wife. The first simply disappeared; the other two died”
Frederick Loren - “Don‘t stay up thinking of ways to get rid of me. It makes wrinkles”
Nora Manning - “Mr. Pritchard, you said your sister-in-law killed a man and a woman here and cut them up? You said they found hands and feet but they never found any heads. Would you like to see one of those heads? Would you all like to see one of those heads? Well then, come with me!”