House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959)
It is most unfortunate that William Castle's haunted house film House on Haunted Hill has been remade into an abysmal update by William Malone complete with overdone make-up, special effects, a ghastly musical score, among other things. Interestingly the 1959 House on Haunted Hill was done with a budget that would seem minuscule compared to the remake, but is infinitely more effective in producing mystery, plot interest, and more importantly, horror.
Millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) has invited five strangers to his reportedly haunted house for the birthday celebration of his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). They are offered ten thousand dollars in exchange for staying in the house the entire night. All of them took the bait with different reasons and excuses. While aviator Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), news reporter Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) and Frederick Loren's company employee Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) are in it primarily for the money, the fifth guest Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) is most certain that the house is haunted and has more personal and pressing excuses to accept the invitation.
The most fascinating thing about House on Haunted Hill is that during the entire film, there is hardly an image of an actual ghost that invades the screen. The actual terror doesn't come from the fact that the house is haunted (Castle leads us to believe it to blanket the treacherous schemes of some of the erstwhile residents of the house), but from the idea that there's something clearly troubling when you trap inside a house five strangers whose primary motivation for being there is greed, and to add to that, you have a couple who are so sick of each other that it won't be surprising if they stabbed each other to death.
William Castle introduces the film with a deathly shriek in the dark and then, an eerie image of Pritchard telling a slight background on the house and the many murders that ensued there. Then, attention is given to Frederick Loren who gives a short backgrounder and some hints on the different guests he has invited to his guests. It's a clever introduction, I think. The introduction effectively bathes the entire film with a supernatural feel and also puts an air of danger in between the guests, who according to Loren's backgrounder, have the need and the capability to murder for money (especially since they'd allow themselves to be locked up inside a mysterious haunted house for a night).
There are really frightful moments within the film, but those are just there to keep you in the edge of your seats. The real centerpiece of the film is the clever designs of treachery and paranoia-inducing that the guests and the hosts are staging for and by themselves. The film showcases several twists that caught me unaware and are most satisfying given the fact that I kept on expecting a ghost or a ghoul to pop out of somewhere.