Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As The Conjuring creeps into theaters, we look back on some of our favorite old-dark-house movies.
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
By 1959, the original 3-D craze, which peaked in 1953–54, had largely died down. People had grown weary of objects seeming to emerge from the flatness of a movie screen, which was all the process seemed to be good for at the time—”see that bloody hatchet comin’ right at you,” as “Weird Al” Yankovic once put it. Producer William Castle, however, felt certain that he could shake up blasé audiences, without the need for any technological wizardry. House On Haunted Hill, which he also directed, featured perhaps the silliest of his famous gimmicks: Emergo, a 3-D concept that actually used all three dimensions. At a key point in this haunted-house chiller, as a skeleton loomed toward the viewer onscreen, a plastic skeleton emergo-ed from a darkened corner of the auditorium and flew over the heads of the spectators, possibly even brushing their heads with its bony feet.
Unless you have a friend who’s willing to construct an elaborate pulley system in your living room, you’ll have to watch House On Haunted Hill in 2-D. Even without the prop, though, it’s still cheesily entertaining, thanks to some expert mystery plotting and a typically plummy performance by Vincent Price. He plays an eccentric millionaire—is there any other kind in the movies?—who offers five people $10,000 each (close to $80,000 in today’s money) to spend the night in an allegedly haunted house. All they have to do to collect is not leave… and survive. This basic scenario has been tackled countless times, but rarely with as much shameless verve as it is here. Castle mostly relies on Emergo to produce screams (which become screams of laughter when rep houses replicate the gimmick today), so without it the movie becomes an exercise in foreboding atmosphere, invaluably assisted by the perpetual nervousness of Elisha Cook Jr. as one of the guests. And while it’s not hard to guess that the participants have more to fear from the living than from the dead, screenwriter Robb White—a popular novelist who collaborated with Castle on most of his best-known pictures—comes up with a couple of genuinely clever twists. Invite some friends over and pretend to go to the bathroom toward the end, then sneak back in and grab someone at the climactic moment. It’ll be close enough.
Availability: DVD and Blu-ray (though the latter is a Rifftrax edition), rental or purchase from VUDU and iTunes, and streaming on Fandor, Netflx, and YouTube.