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Film / House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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"I am Frederick Loren, and I have rented the house on Haunted Hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. A haunted house party. She's so amusing. There'll be food and drink and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders. You're all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I will give you each ten thousand dollars, or your next of kin in case you don't survive. Ah, but here come our other guests."

House on Haunted Hill is a low-budget 1959 horror film directed by William Castle, regarding five people who have been invited to stay the night in a Haunted House.

Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) is throwing his "party" for his fourth wife, Annabelle, with the stipulation that the power will be out and all doors will be locked at midnight, allowing no accessible escape. Anyone who survives the night will be awarded $10,000. As the night progresses, however, it becomes clear that this is no game by the host — the partygoers are indeed trapped here with malevolent ghosts, murderers, and other terrors.

Matching up with William Castle's Signature Style, the film originally released exhibiting one of his past-the-fourth-wall gimmicks — in this case, a model skeleton would be elevated over the movie audience during the climactic scene, and would then be reeled back during the shot of Loren winding its thread back into the reel (which is why this shot seems to go on a bit too long without the gimmick).

The film was remade forty years later by Dark Castle Entertainment. It's also in the Public Domain, and can be viewed and/or downloaded legally for free online. The film was "officially" released to DVD in 1999 from Warner Home Video, and Blu-ray in 2014 from Shout! Factory as a part of their second Vincent Price collection.

This film contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Pritchard, after his brother and sister-in-law were murdered in the house. He spends most of the movie drinking and doomsaying.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Was everything that Annabelle and Dr. Trent caused really just one giant scheme built on superstition with no true supernatural elements involved, or is the house truly haunted?
  • Ambiguously Evil: It's never entirely clear whether Frederick Loren really did kill his first three wives, or the exact circumstances and reasons behind it even if he did kill them.
  • Asshole Victim: Annabelle and Dr. Trent really had it coming.
  • As You Know: Just before the end of the movie, Annabelle and Dr. Trent stand around discussing the details of a plan that they not only both know, but which is already 90% complete.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: The closest the film has to heroes are Nora and Lance, neither of whom kill anyone over the course of the story. The true villain of the film is Annabelle Loren, who has been gaslighting Nora and tried to manipulate and lie to Lance. She is killed not by either of the clean-cut good guys, but by the far more morally questionable Frederick Loren, who might be a serial killer and certainly has a little too much fun giving Annabelle and Dr Trent what they deserve.
  • Batman Gambit: Terrorize Nora into a state of hysteria thinking Loren is trying to kill her, causing her to kill him in "self-defense".
  • Big Bad: Annabelle Loren, who organized the entire party to murder her husband.
  • Bizarrchitecture: All the exterior shots of the titular mansion are of Ennis House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure built in emulation of Mayan temples, but it looks like a typical Victorian-manor soundstage from the inside.note 
    • To give the filmmakers a touch of credit, they did add concrete blocks modeled on the exterior of Ennis House to one of their sets (the basement) to try and tie the interiors to the exterior.
  • The Bluebeard: Loren is on his fourth wife. The first one disappeared, and the second two died of heart attacks, despite being in their 20s. The fourth one is scared to death during the course of the party. She was a Gold Digger planning to murder Loren for his money, however, casting an unsavory light on the intentions of the first three. In retrospect, however, we can't be sure that his first three wives did die under such mysterious circumstances, since the person who described them was trying to create an alibi for Loren's eventual demise.
  • Body in a Breadbox: A severed head turns up in an unsuspecting character's suitcase. It's a fake.
  • Book Ends: The first and last lines are spoken by Pritchard to the audience.
  • Break the Cutie: Traumatizing Nora is a crucial element in Annabelle's scheme.
  • Bulletproof Fashion Plate: Loren's hair stays neat and his suit immaculate even after he is shot with blanks, which in real life at such a close distance would likely cause burns to his clothes at least, and then dragged across the cellar floor (in a house that hasn't been cleaned in a long time) by Dr Trent while playing dead.
  • Character as Himself: The skeleton is credited as "by itself".
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: Loren and Annabelle are both plotting to kill each other by using the party to their advantage.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster that appears as the image for this very article does a pretty good job encapsulating this movie's tone, but the house itself looks like a more conventional Haunted House than the strange Frank Lloyd Wright building used in the movie itself.
  • Closed Circle: Once the clock strikes midnight, the guests will not be allowed to leave.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: One appears to scare the living daylights out of Nora.
  • Dem Bones: The living skeleton that appears before Annabelle. It's actually Dr. Trent's skeleton, which is controlled by Frederick.
  • Disposing of a Body: An attempt is made with Hollywood Acid, but the "body", Frederick Loren, is not dead and Loren throws Dr Trent into the acid instead.
  • Domestic Abuse: Loren skates along the edge of this as he prepares his reluctant wife for her party.
    Loren: Are you ready, dear?
    Annabelle: No.
    Loren: [grabs her hair and pulls it] Are you ready, dear?
    Annabelle: Yes, damn you!
    Annabelle, meanwhile, has tried to poison him at least once before the events of the film start.
  • Do Wrong, Right: When Frederick Loren is accused of murdering his wife, he's offended...because he's not stupid enough to kill her in such an obvious and suspicious way when he had plenty of opportunities to do it and never be suspected.
    Loren: I'm not such a fool as to hang my wife from the ceiling by a rope.
  • Empathic Environment: That House is easily believable as haunted.
  • Enclosed Space: "You won't have a chance to change your minds later... because there won't be a way to get out."
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: Nora is is almost killed by a falling chandelier within minutes of entering the house.
  • Fan Disservice: The poster shows a woman in a slinky dress, which is sliding off her shoulders. She is being hanged.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: Used in the ending: "They're coming for me now... and then they'll come for you."
  • Gaslighting: What Annabelle and Dr. Trent were doing to Nora in the hopes that she'd wind up shooting Mr. Loren for them.
  • Ghostly Glide: The ghostly figure in the cellar later revealed to be one of the caretakers that terrified Nora moves by gliding rather than walking.
  • Ghostly Goals: It seems that Frederick has come back from the dead to haunt his wife. Subverted as it is part of his scheme to get rid of her.
    But you're not going to live to enjoy it!
  • Hand Gagging: Jonas grabs Nora from behind, clamping a hand over her mouth and warning her that she doesn't belong here and should come with him.
  • Haunted House: Well, it's on a haunted hill. What do you expect? Though in the end it's left up to debate if the house truly is haunted, or if it was just an elaborate hoax.
  • Haunted House Historian: Pritchard, who just can't stop talking about all the hideous murders that have happened, and how the ghosts are going to kill everyone before morning.
  • Hollywood Acid: Doesn't eat at bone or the winery container it's stored in. Or for that matter, strings.
  • Hysterical Woman: Nora. Invoked. Annabelle and Dr. Trent are trying to terrify her to the point of killing Loren in 'self-defense'.
  • Implied Love Interest: Lance and Nora. He saves her several times, keeps her secret, and when he goes to look for a way out he says he'll come back for her if he finds one. She's very concerned when he gets locked in the basement, and even after she accuses him of not believing her she begs him to get her out. They also happen to have adjoining rooms.
  • Informed Attribute: We're informed at the beginning of the film that Ruth is a gambler. Are we shown anything of the sort? Nope.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: Happens to Nora a lot. When Lance finally sees one of the severed heads that she insisted was there, he just grabs it by the hair and brings it with him to show everyone.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Nora is baffled that Frederick is still alive after she shot him. He calmly explains that he had loaded her gun with blanks.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: The film is essentially a whole load of characters going around trying to trap and falling into the traps of others.
  • Large Ham: Frederick Loren. He's played by Vincent Price, so would you expect anything less?
  • A Lighter Shade of Black: Loren ends up coming across as somewhat preferable to Annabelle simply because he never tries to harm the protagonists, while Annabelle has been gaslighting Nora and trying to frame her. He's still not a good person, though how true the various accusations against him are is left ambiguous.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • After all is said and done, the existence of actual ghosts is left ambiguous.
    • There is that spot of blood that keeps shows up on Ruth's hand, even after she has washed it off...
  • Millionaire Playboy: Frederick Loren is stated to be this, and has been married four times with all his wives apparently having been younger than him and quite beautiful. It's not focussed on much in the film given the circumstances, though he does still find a bit of time to flirt with, or at least compliment the appearance of, some of the female characters.
  • Noble Demon: If Loren is to be taken at his word, he's going to face the courts willingly after killing Annabelle. Granted, he's leaving out that he intentionally killed her, but it would have been much easier for him to make Nora look crazy and simply let everyone think Annabelle vanished.
  • No Fourth Wall: The film opens with both Pritchard and Loren speaking directly to the audience. This would have been even more blurry in the original theatrical run, where William Castle would dangle plastic skeletons from the ceiling during scare moments.
  • Old, Dark House: Well, it's more like a castle, but it's certainly old and dark, especially once the electricity is cut.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: One of many things used to scare the guests.
  • Only in It for the Money: All the guests agreed to the party for the $10,000 prize to survive the night, because they all need the money in one way or another. In particular, Pritchard, the owner of the house, who is absolutely terrified of the place, agrees, for the money.
  • On One Condition: "I think you all remember the bargain we made about staying all night: $10,000 a piece."
  • Out-Gambitted: "Little did you know, as you were playing your game of murder... that I was playing too."
  • Rain of Blood: Drops of blood fall from the ceiling onto the hand of one of the guests. Watson Pritchard tells the woman that the house has marked her. Notable in being one of the scenes that supports the idea the house is actually haunted.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Frederick gives his party guests "party favors" in the form of fully loaded guns. While they're in a supposedly haunted house which is repeatedly jump-scaring them. Which they then go on to repeatedly point at each other by mistake. Downplayed when he reveals that he only loaded them with blanks. Also, justified in that Annabelle's whole plan is for one of the guests to get scared into shooting her husband.
  • Rich Genius: Frederick Loren is a very clever schemer and manipulator who outwits all the other characters, and uses an elaborate skeleton contraption that seems to be his own invention as a major part of his plan. He's also a millionaire, though it's not stated how he made his money beyond that he owns various unspecified businesses.
  • Screaming Woman: Nora Manning. Justified in that Annabelle's plan is entirely reliant on keeping Nora on edge the whole time.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Discussed by Annabelle Loren, who says that Frederick believes a man as rich as him can get away with anything. While she's not a reliable source of information, she may well be telling the truth about this: it's implied he will get away with killing Annabelle and Dr Trent, and while it's left ambiguous if he did murder his first three wives, if he did, it appears he got away with it in part due to this trope.
  • Steel Ear Drums: When Frederick hands out the guns, he fires at a vase on the mantlepiece while holding the gun inches from Annabelle's face. Despite this she completely unaffected by the noise.
  • Vengeful Ghost: Frederick Loren pretends to be one of these when he is actually still alive.
  • Villain of Another Story: If you believe that Loren really did murder his first three wives out of jealousy. It's left ambiguous, but he shows no sadness over their deaths and his reaction to being accused of murdering Annabelle is to take offence at the idea he'd be stupid enough to do it so publicly, so it seems entirely possible that he really is an unrepentant murderer. Sounds like an obvious villain, and he's definitely not a nice person, but in this case it's Annabelle who's the true villain of the story: not only is she trying to kill him, but unlike him is willing to gaslight an innocent person into doing the killing and pin the blame on her.
  • Wild Card: Frederick Loren. He's not the villain (that would be Annabelle) and is in fact working against the villain, but he can't easily be called a hero. He might be a serial killer, but we never know for certain. His motivation is mysterious for most of the story (though it turns out to be to defeat Annabelle and Dr Trent's plan to murder him, and murder them instead), leaving the other characters constantly unsure whether he's on their side or not. Loren manipulates all the other characters for his own ends and also seems to get quite a bit of amusement out of the whole situation, treating it like a game.
  • World of Ham: Oh Dear God, yes. And it's glorious.