As the film opens, wealthy and oft-married business Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) sets up the movie's premise in his narration. Specifically, he and his (fourth) wife, Annabelle (gorgeous Carol Ohmart) throw a "ghost" party at the haunted house. They invite five guests (who arrive at the house in a caravan of "funeral cars") and offer them $10,000 a piece if they can survive twelve hours locked inside the house. The doors and windows are locked and barred. The party favors inside the house? Loaded pistols ensconced in tiny black coffins.
The five guests include a cold-fish psychiatrist working on a theory about hysteria and fear, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal); Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a modest working-girl who needs the money to support her family; Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), a bitchy gossip columnist with a bad gambling habit; dashing test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long); and the twitchy Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), who has already survived one harrowing night in the house on haunted hill and claims his brother was murdered there. Furthermore, he claims that there are two severed heads laying about on the premises. He's either stark raving bonkers or the only person who knows what's coming.
"There's a been a murder in almost every room in this house," warns Pritchard as viewers are escorted on a tour of the premises. Undoubtedly the creepiest room is the vast wine cellar. There, underneath a trap door, is a vat of boiling acid. Note to visitors: avoid it all costs. The acid destroys everything with hair and flesh and is thus the perfect medium for a murder.
House on Haunted Hill's premise is brilliantly and cleverly set-up by both director Castle and writer Robb White. And the film itself is a study in economy: just a handful of interesting and diverse characters in a mostly empty house (I've used that one myself...). But what makes House on Haunted Hill so much fun is the central conceit: that -- when frightened -- people are unsure of what they've seen and can be manipulated into believing and doing things that seem against their character. In our society today - a fear-based society if ever there was one - this psychological aspect of the film holds up remarkably well.
The 1950s represented a time in American society wherein psychology was growing especially popular and broadly acknowledged; especially in the middle class. As a rational movement, psychology was "invading" the culture at all turns and this is especially true of the horror films of the day. The Bad Seed (1954) asked viewers to contemplate psychology's nature vs. nurture argument. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) assessed psychology and determined that it could be manipulated to explain away uncomfortable truths (like alien invaders or ideological witch hunts). And then there was House on Haunted Hill, examining the fear response, and the manipulation of fear. You'll see, by the way, if you watch them, that all three films feature a psychiatrist/psychologist and usually in a villainous capacity; perhaps expressing the population's distrust of "shrinks." Don't tell Kathryn.
The game of fear in House on Haunted Hill is being waged against the background of a bad marriage. Namely that of Frederick and Annabelle Loren. Annabelle claims to fear for her life since Frederick's last two wives died of heart attacks (at age 28), and Frederick is certain Annabelle has already attempted to kill him once (a poisoning). The ghosts and the guests are just chess pieces to be moved around in this couple's battle for supremacy, domination and survival. Given this depiction of marriage as a competition, the film offers some exceptionally fine (if cruel) marital banter. My favorite is Annabelle's comment to Frederick that "Darling, the only ghoul in this house is you."
That comment also ties into the film's flirtation with the supernatural. Pritchard is convinced ghosts exist ("only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here," he states), but the evidence of the supernatural in House on Haunted Hill is ambiguous to say the least. Chandeliers shake and fall; blood drips from a ceiling (and always on the gossip columnist); and a severed head or two shows up to terrorize Nora-- but we never actually see a ghost. I rather like this approach, especially since the film's "game of murder" focuses on human nature rather than the paranormal. What we are seeing in the house is a psychological game, and the only ghosts are the ones generated by fear. And the skinny one on a pulley...
That stated, the film's one supreme (and still totally efficient) jolt involves a bit of a cheat. Alone in a small-room off the wine cellar, Nora backs into a frightening white-haired lady who appears in the frame suddenly. She not only appears monstrous (with a wild mane of white hair and dead eyes...), she sort of levitates/glides across the wine cellar floor. This seems to me to indicate that she is of supernatural origin, but Vincent Price's character, Loren, explains her away as being a caretaker of the house. Then how does she glide like that? Well, her name is Mrs. Slydes (slides...).
Despite that bit of cheating, House on Haunted Hill remains a terrific and economical horror classic from a bygone age. Vincent Price is front-and-center here just the way you want to remember him: charismatic, eloquent, charming, arrogant, clever, larger-than-life and with a mean-streak indicative of the future Dr. Phibes. And despite some creaky effects, the film is still suspenseful enough to keep you engaged with the characters and their situation all the way through the denouement.
There was a terrible remake of the film in 1999, one that discarded the film's psychological veneer and sense of ambiguity about the supernatural, so it's still this House that's worth seeing. Even fifty years later. True, we can no longer see this effort in the glory of William Castle's Emergo (a technique which levitated a skeleton through theater auditoriums...), but with the story's focus on the human psychology, there are quite enough skeletons in the closet (and haunted house) on hand.