Thursday, October 6, 2011

Octoberfilms: House on Haunted Hill (1959) — Price inflation

What Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is to vintage sci-fi, House on Haunted Hill is for fright flicks. That is to say, this 1959 cheese plate is the archetypal Haunted House camp ghoulishness from the heyday of Jujubes, wax lips, and horror's low-rent P.T. Barnum, producer-director William Castle. One of Castle's more atmospheric and modestly entertaining schlock-o-ramas, today it's a kitsch-cult fave of late-night TV "Monster Chiller Horror Theater" epicures.

Castle is of course remembered for his gimmicky promotions such as theater seats rigged with electric shock buzzers for The Tingler (also with Price and released in 1959), 13 Ghosts' Illusion-O (cellophane ghost viewers), Mr. Sardonicus' Punishment Poll, and Psycho knock-off Homicidal's Fright Break and Coward's Corner. House on Haunted Hill had Emergo — when in the film a vengeful skeleton rose from a vat of bubbling acid, specially equipped theaters reeled out a plastic skeleton that "floated" above the audience on a wire (whereupon the fright-tastic apparition became a popular target for Milk Duds and pea-shooters). As Stephen King recalls in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, Castle also ornamented the movie's PR by warning ticket-buyers that they must have their blood pressure checked before daring to enter the theater.

On DVD we don't get Emergo, alas, and the fully engrossed viewer might be better off gauging his blood alcohol level, but we do get Vincent Price as the sinister millionaire playboy offering to pay each of five strangers $10,000 (say it with a Dr. Evil pinky near your lips) if they can survive being locked overnight in his infamous rented mansion.
"Once the door is locked, there's no way out. The windows have bars that a jail would be proud of, and the only door to the outside locks like vault. There's no electricity, no phone, no one within miles, so no way to call for help." 
Sure, okay, easy peasy. However, the house is already the site of seven unexplained brutal murders, including the brother of one of the guests (jittery Elisha Cook Jr., too many years after The Maltese Falcon, in a role that aches to be played by Don Knotts). He's convinced the victims' ghosts are waiting there to spring out and add to their ranks:
Watson Pritchard: [showing everyone a knife] "This is what she used on my brother and her sister, hacked them to pieces. We found parts of their bodies all over the house, in places you wouldn't think. A funny thing is: the heads have never been found. Hands and feet and things like that, but no heads."

Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal as the drywall-dull love interest): "The wife, probably in a fit of rage, threatened her husband with the knife, and then, carried away by hysteria, took a swing at him and simply went on from there."

Test pilot Lance Schroeder (TV's Richard Long): "She certainly went on, how many people did she kill, Mr. Pritchard?"

Pritchard: "Only two, her husband and her sister, nobody else was here."

Schroeder: "So there are two loose heads just floating around here someplace?"

Pritchard: "You can hear them at night, they whisper to each other, and then cry."
Well. So much for Twister and a pillow fight.

Price gifts them with little coffins, inside of which are loaded revolvers. Then like carnival-goers stumbling through a boo!-rific spookhouse, they're beset by squeaking doors, eerie specters, a ceiling that drips blood (about which we're told, "a young girl was killed here, and whatever got her wasn't human"), one falling chandelier, severed heads, a ghost-witch in the cellar (a fine jolt), an organ playing itself, a monster hand grasping the hysterical ingénue's shoulder, a walking skeleton, and other proto-Scooby-Doo tropes.

Will the guests gun each other dead in a lethal epidemic of the willies? Why do Price's acid-tongued millionaire and his scheming trophy wife, Carol Ohmart, hate each other so? ("Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?") And how does soused, walleyed Elisha Cook Jr. straight-face lines such as "These guns are no good against the dead, only the living" before ending the film by intoning, "They're coming for me now — [looks out through the screen at us] — and then they'll come for you!"?

As if we need more evidence that no one considered this more than just a silly seat-filling goof even in '59, notice that in the closing credits "Skeleton" is played by "Himself."

Vincent Price's portrait hangs at the entrance to the museum of charming villainy, and here he serves up the meticulously spiced ham we love him for. Before his 1960s Poe period and '70s Phibes phase, his tongue is already lodged in his cheek and his eyebrow is arched just so when his giant floating head opens the movie by inviting the audience to a party of "food and drink and ghosts … and maybe even a few murders." Price is always a treat, even when (as here) the other actors around him generate all the dramatic impact of a moist towelette. He purrs some fine chuckle-worthy lines ("Don't stay up thinking of ways to get rid of me; it makes wrinkles.") He makes worthwhile an otherwise plodding movie with an eye-rolling EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt "surprise"-ending, which is more than can be said about the less entertaining and endearing 1999 remake.

(The titular house's exterior, by the way, is L.A.'s Ennis-Brown House, a Frank Lloyd Wright concrete block behemoth that continued to earn its SAG card in Blade Runner, The Rocketeer, Rush Hour, TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other productions.)

Legend Films is "a studio specializing in restoring and colorizing classic films," touting a "proprietary new technology" that "allows us to color films in high definition at a never-before-seen vibrancy." Their edition of House on Haunted Hill makes the fifth DVD release, at least, for this public-domain favorite. This time the fun animated menus give us both the restored black-and-white original plus a new colorized version of the film. The colorized version is the main attraction, with the original b&w version demoted to the Special Features menu without a scene-select option.

For purists, the original version looks terrific. The restoration has yielded a spotless print with a flawless transfer. It's a sharp, pristine image with solid blacks and graytones.

As for the colorized version (this film's first color release), it's [shrug] okay. It's harmless enough, and it's not as if this is Casablanca. That "never-before-seen vibrancy" can be a bit much, but the hues and tones are more agreeably muted than what I've witnessed in other colorized releases.

We stubborn traditionalists find it hard to see much value in even good work put into the process, so I can thank Legend for their fine restoration of the b&w original while giving us the choice of options. The previous Warner edition delivered the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and this edition removes the "black bars" for an open-matte full-screen image (not pan-and-scan).

For either version, the DD 2.0 monaural audio is likewise cleaned-up and hardy.

The big extra here is the audio commentary by Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson. He gives the film a snarky but often quite funny MST3K-style RiffTrax spitballing, so his followers who miss his days with Tom Servo should be as pleased as the film's completist fans.

That amusing original theatrical trailer is on hand as well, along with a scored montage of the original press book in all its over-the-top splendor. Its suggestions for theater owners include:
"Park an ambulance in front of your theater."
"Have a uniformed nurse in lobby to distribute 'tranquilizer' pills."
"Loan a coffin to spot in your lobby or next to your box office; in the coffin, place a real skeleton."
On the down side, the Legend DVD case's squaresville cover design misses the point by replacing the original comic-booky poster art with some unnecessary attempt to make the film look as though it might co-star Meryl Streep.

Music: Yo-Yo Ma, Appasionato
Near at hand: A heavily marked-up first draft