House on Haunted Hill marks its 60th year anniversary since it was first shown to American audiences on January 14, 1959, in San Francisco, California. The film still possesses the power to startle and add a comedic weight to its audiences viewing experiences decades after its initial release.
The special qualities embedded in House on Haunted Hill are what allow it to earn the recognition of being a horror classic, even though there is not much to fear. Instead, House on Haunted Hill provokes its viewers to question and answer the potential motives that its characters may have, and by associating the film with gimmicks, there are more questions surrounding whether what is happening in the narrative is part of reality, or is layered in surrealism. The above is what transforms the course of the narrative as the characters themselves, and viewers, get caught up in the grand scheme of things and explore the secrecy inside House on Haunted Hill.
Based on a simple premise, House on Haunted Hill centers its drama around a lust, greed and convinced need for money. Frederick Loren (Vincent Price), is a millionaire who is hosting a party for his current wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). The party takes place in what is argued to be a haunted house, where Frederick sends out an invitation to five supposed strangers to join them at the house for one night. Upon successful completion of staying at the house, Frederick states that each one of the five has the possibility to leave the house $10,000 richer on the principle that they commit themselves to stay in the house until the caretakers return the next morning. The only connection that the five have is supposed to be their need for money, but multiple schemes and shock horrors prove that the story could never be so simple.
With the turn of events that unfold, the film becomes reminiscent of experiences with the board game Cluedo. Frederick and Annabelle have already played their first moves on the board, as the relationship between the two is uncovered as the two share their distaste for one another and mirror forms of resentment. Frederick, knowing that Annabelle may already have made a previous attempt to take his life by poisoning him so that she may inherit his wealth, appears brazen yet grows suspicious of Annabelle and lingers in paranoia. As this information is revealed, a taste of distrust is planted inside the character of Annabelle. Annabelle has been convicted to only have one thing on her mind, Frederick’s money, and the rest of the guests are left in the dark about the tense relationship Frederick and Annabelle share. House on Haunted Hill begins to leave open the question of will Frederick have a scheme to seek revenge from the way Annabelle has treated him, will he succumb to his death at the hand of Annabelle, or will Annabelle reach her own demise. House on Haunted Hill maps out many potential narratives and calls for interrogation as anything appears possible in this house where motives unravel.
In an advancement from Cluedo, the main characters in House on Haunted Hill go one step further. They tactfully play a game with each other using fear as a weapon and conspire schemes that can either protect or claim wealth, all of which will result in a life being taken because of vengeance. The schemes and mysteries themselves get to hide behind an old, large Victorian house that is characterized as haunted where anything may be lurking in the secret passageways that become revealed. The house also acts as an elaborate maze and is used to keep the guests bound to their rooms or locked up in another hidden room, so that the perpetrators may subtly linger in plain sight around the house, unknown to the others.
Fear becomes the ultimate weapon and masquerade in House on Haunted Hill, and is portrayed through the tension throughout the house, and how Annabelle pleads to fellow guest Lance (Richard Long) that she suspects Frederick murdered his previous wives. Whilst embodying this fear, Annabelle is led to believe that she may have the same fate awaiting her as the House on Haunted Hill is argued to of claimed many lives in its lifetime. Personal dramas aside, whether through trapdoors or hidden passageways in this haunted house, the question remains at large as to whether House on Haunted Hill is a haunted playground, with some entity or person trying to claim the lives of its guests, or whether there is are deliberate actions and behavior from guests as part of something bigger than a haunting. When Frederick becomes a potential suspect of murder, as part of an elaborate plan to place him as a suspect as to why Annabelle may have taken her own life, the film takes full flight as a catalyst of events now take place and later unfold. There is a mystery surrounding whether Annabelle decided to take her own life because of her fear of Frederick, whether he killed her himself, or whether she saw a potential ghost.
House on Haunted Hill is masterful at keeping open its many mysteries. And, eventually, they are all unraveled one after the other, all pointing to one direction where viewers and the guests are provided with many answers, insights into the character’s behaviors and relationships. These factors play a role in the ultimate resolution in a film that contains many schemes and secretive plans. House on Haunted Hill evidently becomes an enjoyable watch for those who enjoy unraveling a mystery with many layers, as there are many factors that contribute to the equation of why a guest may take the course of action that they do, all linking to where they stand with the other guests.
The narrative becomes neatly tied up inside the house in a key room that appears to be the most haunted and dark, as it keeps many hidden secrets. The drama finds its resolution once the film has one final return to the hidden bath of acid that is showed to the guest early in the film. The bath returns to play a large role in uncovering the truth around the mysteries of House on Haunted Hill as it serves as an introduction and conclusion. It reveals the themes of the film and of the house, and what nature of behavior occurs within them as everything becomes a full circle and engraved in the history of the house forever, only adding to the mystery.
House on Haunted Hill is commendable for its simple, easy to navigate set design that holds many different turns within it. By utilizing such a simple yet effective feature, the film itself has much success in how the narrative is presented on-screen courtesy to the structural elements. In addition, Vincent Price gives an enthralling performance and commits himself to the confined world of House on Haunted Hill, a world that you can either laugh in marvel at or will keep you in suspense.
If there is a message to take away from House on Haunted Hill, it is to not bite off more than you can chew and be careful of your surroundings.
Celebrate the 60th year of House on Haunted Hill by streaming the film for free on Kanopy.