House on Haunted Hill

4 out of 5

Directed by: William Castle

The opening floating head narration – Vincent Price explaining to us his rich person’s game of paying several strangers to stay the night in a haunted house – certainly sets one up for expecting something pretty campy, and while it’s not like House on Haunted Hill is without camp, it’s also pleasingly grim at points, never tipping fully into B-movie theatrics and thus keeping a good undercurrent of spookiness, and clicks steadily along with some really entertaining exchanges and a well varied crop of actors.

The setup is mostly as stated: rich dude Frederick Loren (Price) is fulfilling the wishes of his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), by organizing the evening’s festivities – inviting a mixed group of doctors and secretaries and drunks and etc. to potentially earn $10,000 by surviving the night in this reputed haunted house. But there’s something else going on here, as Annabelle protests that Frederick has changed the arrangement – the invitees were supposed to be friends, not strangers, and the money was a new lure – and the couple doesn’t seem to get along too well: hubby is extremely jealous; wife is wary of his many ex-wives; and maybe she’s tried to poison him at least once?

These back-and-forths are delightfully written and acted, very sharp, and the same extends to the overnight tenants, even while they each occupy particular heroic / logical / prim / flighty / etc. 1-note personality types. The movie leans into this, and so the actors don’t have to overplay it.

For most of the runtime, director William Castle runs a tight ship of quality scares and red herrings, allowing explanations to come at logical points, while also choicefully leaving plenty of things unexplained as a new fright interrupts the characters explorations of the previous one. This sets up a good grounding of skepticism for the movie – acknowledging that ghosts don’t exist, no one really believes it, but struggling to explain (or show the viewer) what’s happening beyond some occasional hints – and keeps us circling in a whodunnit guessing game when, of course, some people don’t make it through the night…

The conclusion isn’t exactly rushed, but it does feel hurried to close things out before you can ask too many Whys; the flipside of that being that the movie does maintain its sense of fun and thrills throughout, very buoyed by a perfect Price, but also quality production and acting all around.