FEATURE: Shocktober - House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Throwing a macabre party for his wife Annabelle, millionnaire Frederick Loren gathers five strangers to the eponymous house and offers them $10,000 if they can make it through the night. The only catch is that one of the guests, the consistently drunk Pritchard, is adamant that ghosts walk the halls and look for more victims to join their number. As the freaky coincidences mount and nerves fray, a body appears and everyone starts pointing fingers.

Now this is more like it.

Loosely based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, House on Haunted Hill is more interested at first in establishing the dynamics between its characters before it starts piling on the mystery. We learn quickly of Loren's antagonistic relationship with his wife and she quickly sows seeds of doubt in the minds of the party guests by stating she suspects him of trying to murder them. There's more than a little hint that Lance Schroeder and Nora Manning are attracted to each other whilst Dr Trent offers an element of cynicism to the proceedings. Pritchard meanwhile gets increasingly drunk and desperate as the events progress.

When the guests begin exploring the house, the film makes a brilliant use of light and shade to bring about some interesting scares, like Nora's encounter with the housekeeper in the wine cellar. These tricks may now be as old as they come, but in a film like this which prizes atmosphere over cheap shocks, they work particularly well. Same too for the bloody spots on her hand that plagues newspaper columunist Ruth throughout the film, followed around by a bloodstained ceiling. Ghostly apparitions appear at windows, walls give way for people to fall through them and dead bodies move about their house seemingly of their own volition.

The soundscape of the film is also very effective, relying on thunderclaps to punctuate some of the more dramatic scenes towards the climax or the noises of the house itself. The macabre tone is also set in the opening moments, a pitch black screen where only terrified screams and maniacal laughter can be heard. Whilst it might not be as effective as it once was in cinema and before audiences became extremely savvy, it's still a cracking way to kick off a film and perfectly establishes the atmosphere moving forward. The score is beautiful too, a low, ominous undercurrent that carries its own clues to the twists in the narrative.

It also helps it enormously that there is a blackly comic sense of humour running throughout the film, largely down to the performances. Vincent Price is as reliable as ever as the overseer of the proceedings, convinced his wife is after his millions whilst Carol Ohmart as Annabelle is wonderful in opposition to him, trading barb for barb. Carolyn Craig also exhibits a magnificent capacity for screaming as the poor, maligned Nora, the target for much of the ghostly goings on in the film and Elisha Cook's Pritchard dispenses ominous warnings with ease.

There are a couple of moments in which it shows its age, particularly in some of the special effects and recycled shots used. There's also a scene in which it takes an absolute age for a death to come about, one that could have easily been escaped from. However, it's these little bits that add to the charm of it all. House on Haunted Hill may be 55 years old, but it has lost none of its bite over the years, producing a chilling, blackly comic and at times, pretty unnerving film. Remember kids, if Vincent Price invites you over to stay, politely decline and run away.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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