When I was a kid I always liked to watch the Friday Night Frightening Flickers with Gregory the Gravewalker and the Saturday Afternoon Monster Matinee. They would show all these cool old movies, like The Dead of Night, Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, Black Sunday (which, I realized decades later, was the source of my recurring nightmares) and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. One of my favorites was William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill. Was this technically a great film? Maybe, maybe not, but it impressed me as a 9 year old. Let’s see how it holds up to analysis.
It opens up as a black screen with a lot of screams and groans. In a theater this would have played well – a bit of a surprise, setting a mood – but on my little laptop it doesn’t do so much. After that we get a bit of exposition delivered by disembodied heads. Visually this relates to something we find out later: there were several murders in the house, and the heads were never found. Storytellingwise, it’s a copout. The exposition probably could have been omitted without confusing the audience. The director had a habit of talking directly to the audience though, so I suppose you could call it a trademark as much as a copout.
Throughout the movie there is a great use of light and shadow. Black and white movies – the well-made ones – were especially good at this. There is also a lot of eerie music in the background. The movie is a treasure trove of terror tropes.
This particular house is slightly problematic for me since I recognize it as a Frank Lloyd Wright house from the exterior, while the inside is definitely not his work. The haunted house is a trope in itself. We see doors closing by themselves practically from the beginning. Cobwebs also show up early and often. The basic plot is close to a fete worse than death. We see both the power of blood and a rain of blood. and creepy housekeepers, a distressed damsel, and an enemy rising behind. This last scene is what I’d call laugh out loud scary. And that’s all within the first half hour. The climactic scene has marionette motion, complete with a skeleton marionette. According to the closing credits, the skeleton was played “by himself.”
Ebert talks about how high angle shots make characters look like pawns. We can see an example of this with one of the characters who plays a victim in many scenes throughout the film. The footage that follows this shot is completely goofy on the level of story, especially that hairy ape-like hand reaching around the corner, yet the pacing, lighting and sound make it eerie and creepy without any of the gore that dominates modern horror.
After watching the film again, it’s still one of my favorites.