Judge Eric Profancik finds that a night in a haunted house is improved greatly by the presence of MST3K's Mike Nelson.
Our reviews of House On Haunted Hill (1999) (published April 21st, 2000), RiffTrax: House on Haunted Hill (published May 22nd, 2009), The Vincent Price Collection II (Blu-ray) (published October 14th, 2014), and Vincent Price Double Feature (published December 23rd, 2004) are also available.
"Our guests are here and unfortunately still alive."
Thanks in only small part to the sad 1999 remake, I believe that most everyone is familiar with the original 1958 movie House on Haunted Hill. Starring the infamous Vincent Price, it is another entry in the man's impressive résumé of films in the horror genre. For us jaded viewers in the 21st century, this is not a horror film. It's more of a nostalgic look back at the more innocent days of our past, when a fake skeleton rising out of some murky water was enough to spook an audience.
Frederick Loren (Price) has invited five persons to the house on Haunted Hill, supposedly the only true haunted house in existence. He agrees to pay each person $10,000 if he or she will spend the night inside the house. Each is in desperate need of money for diverse reasons, so they readily agree—for who believes in ghosts? Yet almost as soon as the front door is locked at midnight, strange things are afoot. The ghosts of the house seem particularly fixated on the beautiful young Nora, an employee in one of Mr. Loren's numerous companies. She keeps seeing ghastly sights, but no one believes her. Things get more complicated as the evening progresses, and it turns out that there may in fact be ghosts in the house on Haunted Hill.
Truly, House on Haunted Hill does not have the slightest twitch of a scare. Instead, it's a campy, corny, innocently charming film with another delicious performance by Vincent Price. Once again he's in full command of every scene, dripping with smooth, oily, confident charm. You're not sure if you should be intimidated or flattered. While the plot does contain a moderately interesting twist, Price is the only reason to watch this slight film. It's just fun to watch an actor with such a firm and commanding presence, even if it's in the merest whiff of a film.
This DVD release from Fox contains a new colorized print of the film. Don't fear, purists, for the original—albeit restored—black-and-white version is also included! I understand the importance of releasing films as originally intended, yet I am not supremely bothered by colorized films, especially when the original print is included. The technology used to add color to this film is surprisingly good, but you can still tell it is colorized: The flesh tones are too uniform and an occasional scene just looks wrong.
The transfers are solid for a film nearing the fifty-year mark. Obviously you have two choices for the video, color or black-and-white. After watching it both ways, I found that the original black-and-white print gave the movie an extra layer of character; it made it fractionally frightening. With crisp blacks and good shadow delineation, the original print is only marred by a few dirt speckles, but they are negligible on this restored print. The colorized version also has the same dirt speckles, and I was impressed with the colorization (with the exceptions noted earlier). For the audio track, you have the original mono, which is wholly unremarkable and a bit tinny.
For fans of the movie, the disc contains a couple of bonus items. On the main menu is a quick featurette (3 minutes) that gives an overview of the colorization process. I wish it had gone into more technical details. On the special features menu you will find the option to watch the movie in black-and-white (why isn't this on the main menu?), the original poster book (2.5 minutes), trailers for House on Haunted Hill (both color and black-and-white versions), Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, Reefer Madness, and The Three Stooges in Color. But the highlight of the bonus features, and of the entire disc, is an audio commentary by Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (available on either version of the movie). With his wonderfully snarky bits, Nelson turned this rather dull movie into a fun, kitschy experience. Any fans of that departed show will be delighted to have a new movie picked apart, albeit sans robots and on-screen silhouettes. Of note, the disc does not contain any subtitles, but the menu design is well done.
House on Haunted Hill may be William Castle's most famous film, but it doesn't make it a great film. It's neither great nor bad; it's just a harmless, fun little picture. I liked Vincent Price, and I enjoyed the commentary track; and based on those two things, I give this one a rental recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
• Restored Black-and-White Version of Film
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