Movie audiences going to see House on Haunted Hill in 1959 knew they were in for a treat. They didn’t know much more than that – only that it was something called “Emergo” and it had never before been seen.
The fact that it came from director William Castle set high expectations for audiences looking for a good fright. On his previous film Macabre (1958), he gave each moviegoer a $1,000 life insurance certificate from Lloyd’s of London in case they died of fright watching the movie.
Besides Emergo, his new film also had the bonus of starring Vincent Price as a millionaire who promises a group of strangers that he’ll give $10,000 to each one who stays the night in a haunted house.
Audiences must have been so excited to experience Emergo when they took their seats for the movie. But it would be more than an hour – about 69 minutes into the slim 75-minute film – before Emergo would reveal itself. It makes me wonder how they felt sitting all that time. Did the delay work by building a growing anticipation and tension? Or did people forget about Emergo and settle into the film?
With only minutes to spare before the fade to black, it finally came. As moviegoers watched a climactic scene on screen, the same image came to life in theaters as a 12-foot glow-in-the-dark skeleton with red flowing eyes flew over the audience. Emergo turned out to be a skeleton emerging from the darkness and it was over in about a minute.
Audiences were startled. Screams (and laughter) ensued.
It was a success – to a point. As exciting as it was for first-time watchers, word quickly spread about the flying skeleton and ruined the Emergo surprise. Kids started going just to pelt the skeleton with candy and marbles. Theater owners weren’t happy.
That was it for Emergo. And that should have been the end of the story.
But here we are, more than 60 years later and still talking about – and watching – House on Haunted Hill. The film has earned the distinction of being a classic in the classic horror genre while remaining a staple on networks like Turner Classic Movies, at repertory theaters and in classic film series, and for Halloween viewing. It’s also one of the choices on the new streaming service Best Classics Ever under the Classic Movie Hub Channel, appropriately found under the theme of “Friday Night.”
[Read more about the partnership between Classic Movie Hub and Best Classics Ever.]
While Emergo helped make the film a box office success, it has only been used in a handful of screenings since the original release. So how do we explain the lasting appeal of House on Haunted Hill?
It’s the combination of a few things. Vincent Price, of course, but also Castle. Though it’s easy for Castle the director to be overshadowed by his showmanship, he had a good eye for directing. He knew how to use camera angles to add tension and suspense, utilizing low and overhead shots to convey fear, fate and feelings of being watched. Shadows of bars on walls trapped the characters, a visualization of how they are imprisoned in the house, too.
That’s not to say he didn’t bring that Castle flair for gimmicks into the film – it’s there in a scene where guests arrive in hearses and another where little coffins are given to guests as “party favors” (they each hold a pistol).
It’s most apparent in the film’s crazy opening that borders on genius (a word I use lightly) in its simplicity and effectiveness.
Imagine sitting in a theater – not just in 1959 but in 2020, too – and you’re waiting for the movie to start.
The studio’s name appears without fanfare in the screen’s lower left corner – Allied Artists Pictures Corporation Presents.
Cut to darkness.
Then a piercing scream. (It’s OK if you jump – everyone does.)
More screaming. Doors creaking and chains rattling through the darkness.
Finally, we see … something. It’s … a floating head?
It’s creepy and comical at the same time – and it’s vintage Castle.
That talking, floating head is Watson Pritchard (played with perfect jittery anxiety by Elisha Cook Jr.) who is latest owner of the house of the title.
“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless, hungry,” he says, before explaining how his brother was one of seven people murdered in the house he calls “the only really haunted house in the world.”
Enter floating (and talking) head No. 2, millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) who is renting the house to throw a “haunted house party” for his fourth wife, the beguiling Annabelle (Carole Ohmart). He has carefully curated the guest list, offering $10,000 to all who spend the night – 12 hours – locked in the house.
There will be “food and drink and ghosts and maybe a few murders,” he promises.
It’s a startling way to open the film and is still effective today. (I get into it no matter how many times I see the film).
Meet the guests
Like any film worth including in the “strangers in an old house” genre, House on Haunted Hill provides an eclectic array of guests.
These strangers share one trait: they’re all in need of money and that makes them capable of doing anything for $10,000.
Meet Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a sweet young secretary who is supporting her family; handsome pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long); columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) who has a gambling problem; and Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) who specializes in hysteria.
We’ve also got Watson who, despite being terrified of the house and its “inhabitants,” can’t stay away (as long as he can fortify himself with liquid courage).
Let’s not forget Annabelle and Frederick, the not-so-loving couple. She’s in her room acting like a spoiled brat who didn’t get to invite her own party guests, but he insists she join the festivities. Calmly and quietly they exchange verbal sparring that is understated yet vicious. It is delightful to watch. (This scene is enough to make them one of my favorite movie couples.)
He offers her $1 million – tax free – to leave him, but she says she deserves his entire fortune. He’s jealous and possessive, she insists. He reminds her that she’s tried to kill him multiple times. (“Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?”) Still, he’s no better judging by the fates of his three previous wives.
When he tells her not to be afraid of the ghosts and ghouls, she responds “Darling, the only ghoul in the house is you.”
A grim party theme
Sadly, that humorous scene ends, and Frederick joins the party where killjoy Watson is spinning his “spook talk” of horrific tales of murder and decapitated heads lost “inside” the house. To add to the party atmosphere, Watson takes the guests on a house tour. There’s the spot on the ceiling that shows blood from one grisly murder. (“Whatever got her wasn’t human,” he says of the victim.) In the basement, Watson shows them the vat of acid where a wine maker threw his wife after she criticized his vino.
The group is a mix of skeptics and believers but even as strange things start to happen – look out for that falling chandelier – the money is too good to pass up. Then it’s too late and they’re locked in the house behind a steel door and windows with bars “a jail would be proud of.” There’s no phone, no electricity, no way to call for help. And things are getting really strange now.
Doors open, close and lock on their own. Blood drips from the ceiling. There are ghostly apparitions, heads in boxes, secret rooms and a hairy hand. Gas lights have a habit of flickering in sequence and burning out. Poor Nora will annoyingly scream her lungs out from one frightful experience after another, giving the doctor something to do by diagnosing her hysteria.
Others start to unravel as well. They gather multiple times in the drawing room, skulk around hallways, explore the creepy house and hide behind locked bedroom doors where they still aren’t safe. (How is that rope coming through the window and what does it want?) Oh, and someone will die
Let’s leave the plot there – to say more would involve spoilers. Plus, this movie is about the journey, not the destination and that fits in nicely with the cinematic world of William Castle.
From that offbeat opening – clearly inspiration for countless haunted house attractions since – to all the banging doors, hands reaching out from the darkness and crazy effects that look deliberately phony – Castle is taking us on a ride he calls House on Haunted Hill.
Laugh, scream, sigh – react any way you want. Castle – the showman and the filmmaker – would be proud.
Other tricks from William Castle
The Tingler/ “Percepto.” (1959). The title character is a large, long insect-like creature that, once activated by fright, attaches to a person’s spinal cord and can only be released by screaming. For “Percepto,” Castle had seat buzzers set to to go off just as the creature gets loose during a scene in a movie theater. “Scream, scream for your lives,” Price tells audiences. And they did.
13 Ghosts / “Illusion-O” (1960). Moviegoers were handed a ghost viewer/remover to use during the movie. In certain segments of the film, if they looked through the red cellophane they could see ghosts; but if they looked through the blue, the ghosts were hidden.
Homicidal/ “Fright Break” (1961). Before the movie’s climax involving a sadistic killer, a 45-second timer went off to give scared moviegoers time to leave. They could collect a refund, but only if they went to the “Coward’s Corner.”
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.