Seasonal movie watching has been a little sparse this year, and I don’t mean the Hallmark Channel ladling out a new batch gooey sweet Christmas romances. No, I’m talking about the Halloween season. My fault, though, since I’m not much of a fan of most of the contemporary horror films cluttering the cable channels, finding most of them gross at best or sadistically vile in a few cases. Universal 1930’s – 1940’s classics (even the silly multi-monster-fests) are more to my taste along with a few of the 1950’s – 1970’s Hammer horrors (partial to the Dracula and other vampire films, even the later sex-ified lesbian-vampire bared-breast-fests). I’ve caught a few of all these on cable or my own DVD’s. And though I’m kind of indifferent to most of the 1950’s – 1970’s Roger Corman/AIP shockers and their kin from that time, I do like one flick from that era: Shock-meister William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill from 1959.
1959 being the same year in which my own personal writing projects are set (that being “The Stiletto Gumshoe”), The House On Haunted Hill even merits a mention in the first novel currently making the rounds (still). And that film was on in primetime Wednesay evening, so I was sprawled on the couch in the dark watching it. Sure, the movie’s kind of silly, but it’s more eerily subdued than most drive-in fare from that time…dark and claustrophobic throughout, and I bet it was spooky enough in a dark movie theater sixty years ago…especially with showman Castle’s “Emergo” in-theater special effects (a dummy skeleton floating on wires over the audience).
Vincent Price plays an eccentric millionaire who’s invited a seemingly random group of guests to spend the night in a notorious haunted house. Anyone who can survive till morning earns a cool ten grand. They’re joined by his very reluctant (and presumably unfaithful) wife, played by Carol Ohmart, and watching Price and Ohmart chew up the scenery while they try to out-bitch each other is quite a treat. There are sudden shocks aplenty, but one sequence in particular absolutely un-nerved me when I first saw this movie on TV as a kid. Carolyn Craig plays Nora Manning, the ingenue among the guests, and she bears the brunt of the frights and ghostly attacks. Not long after Carol Ohmart’s found dead – hung over a stairwell, though whether it was suicide, murder, or by some otherworldly hand is unclear – her spirit appears outside young Nora’s bedroom window. The very rope she was hung by slowly snakes in through the window, slithering across the floor towards Nora, circling her feet, ready to loop into a noose…and –
Well, I’m not sure what it was ready to do. Hang Nora by her heels? No matter. That rope pulling tight around her shoes along with the sight of the presumed dead Carol Ohmart floating outside the window was (and still is) pretty chilling. I’m sure I saw much scarier things in my wayward youth, even scarier things in The House On Haunted Hill, but this sequence still lingers with me..
The House On Haunted Hill wraps up with a pretty standard if slightly implausible haunted house tale resolution to chase away all (or most) of the supernatural. And though I usually consider it a sacrilege, there’s even a colorized version of this movie that’s not un-watchable, the hues much more subdued than most colorized hatchet jobs.
As if the movie’s eerie sense of dread and the macabre wasn’t enough, it even intruded on real-life when the lovely Carolyn Craig (1934 – 1970), who’d only started working in films three years before appearing in The House On Haunted Hill and whose resume already included 8 movies (even the critically acclaimed A Face In The Crowd), tragically took her own life, dying from a self-inflicted gunshot, and only 36 when she died.
Cue the spooky music now…