The Best Horror Movie of 1959: House on Haunted Hill

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The Best Horror Movie of 1959: House on Haunted Hill

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

1959 is one of those years that offers a little bit of everything, but doesn’t really own anything you’d call a masterpiece of the genre. It’s home to everything from sci-fi, spacefaring horror to the launch of new Hammer gothic horror series, to the rebirth of the American “Old Dark House” genre—some for all tastes. It’s noteworthy in particular for the prominence of two names that will be common in the low-budget horror circles for the next several decades: William Castle and Roger Corman. The first is the genre’s consummate showman and snake oil salesman, while the latter is its most consistently successful promoter, producer and discoverer of young talent. Together, the two would shape the image of American horror cinema for the next decade and beyond.

On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, it feels like the well might be starting to dry up a bit—it’s no coincidence that a late-to-the-party Ed Wood is now releasing his infamous film Plan 9 From Outer Space, exploring territory that has been thoroughly covered throughout this decade. Still, there are a lot of horror stories here that are themed around science, including Return of the Fly and Castle’s The Tingler—still famous today for its classic fourth wall-breaking sequence, in which Price implores the audience members to “scream for your lives!” because “the Tingler is loose in this theater!” Castle, with his love of gimmickry, even had certain theater seats installed with buzzers/vibrating devices, in order to make unsuspecting viewers believe they were feeling the “tingling” attack of the titular creature.

It’s another strong year for Hammer’s gruesome twosome as well, as the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star together in two very different, Terence Fisher-directed films: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy. The former sees Cushing assuming the mantle of Sherlock Holmes that had been associated heavily with Basil Rathbone since the 1940s, with Lee playing a protagonist for once in the form of Sir Henry Baskerville. Cushing’s aquiline features, whip-smart delivery and impish humor make him well suited for the role of Holmes, and the film is often considered one of the very best feature adaptations of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel. In The Mummy, on the other hand, Cushing is playing a somewhat snooty archaeologist, who runs afoul of a vengeful Egyptian antagonist who wants payback on the excavators for their careers of profiteering off his nation’s history in the name of science. It’s actually a pretty relatable grievance, except for the fact that his solution to the problem is to unleash the undead mummy Kharis, played by—of course—Christopher Lee. As such, Hammer’s The Mummy has a bit more in common with the schlocky Universal Mummy sequels than Karloff’s touching, doomed love story from 1932, although it does replicate the “reincarnated bride” aspect to a lesser degree. It gets by, like so many other Hammer films of the period, on its performances and lush production design.

1959 Honorable Mentions: The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Tingler, The Mummy, The Ghost of Yotsuya, A Bucket of Blood, The Bat, Plan 9 From Outer Space

The Film: House on Haunted Hill
Director: William Castle

Aside from the gimmick that the ever-shameless William Castle titled “Emergo,” which consisted of a skeleton on a string flying over live theater audiences, there wasn’t anything particularly novel about House on Haunted Hill when it was released in 1959. In fact, pretty much everything in the film was already a throwback to the golden era of Old Dark House mysteries, from its classically spooky set-dressings to its crew of strangers boarded up in a purportedly haunted house for the night. Truth be told, it’s really not a very “scary” film, nor was it trying particularly hard to be one. What it is instead is an incredibly entertaining ghost yarn; a charming amalgam of familiar elements that have been buffed up and given a new shine and the benefit of some outstanding performances. It plays like a horror genre “greatest hits” album.

Vincent Price, of course, is the straw that stirs the drink. He’s playing eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five seeming strangers to an allegedly haunted house in honor of his icily cold wife, who he quite clearly despises. The poor souls who walk through the house’s doors have immediately stepped into a minefield of matrimonial combat; a 4D chess match that is played out via numerous plots and double-crosses. And then, of course, there’s the manner of the house’s restless spirits …

Price, suffice to say, is fabulous, and much of the way the actor is depicted in pop culture comes as a pantomime of his performance here. Every line is delivered with supreme sardonicism, from a man who seems to both resent his station on Earth and relish each small way he’s able to make his guests feel uncomfortable. He’s in full-on mastermind mode, and it’s a joy to watch him work, playing up the campiness of his dialog and the scenario while still retaining an ineffable degree of cool.

The house itself, likewise, feels like a primary character, resonant with the trappings of decades of haunted house tales. Cobwebs crust seemingly every corner. Chandeliers come crashing down where someone was standing moments before. Secret passages connect one room to another. Clawed hands emerge from around a corner to swipe at the lovely Carolyn Craig, who screams her head off with particular gusto. There’s very little internal logic for how any of it is pulled off, given the eventual explanation, but the audience has enjoyed themselves far too much to care. That’s just the sort of film it is.

Given that lighthearted attitude, this is also one of the few times we’ll actively recommend seeking out the colorized re-release of a film that was originally released in black-and-white. The color version of House on Haunted Hill makes for an even more cheesily novel experience, as it casts its characters in unrealistically bright primary hues, visually sorting them like the various player pieces from the board game Clue. Throw that version of the film on in the background of a Halloween party, and all will seem right with the world.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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