Given the season, Judge Dennis Prince has two observations: Peace on Earth could be achieved if one were to be the last man standing. But in the case of haunted houses, if this is the season to make spirits rise, should that include victims of hangings and acid baths, too?
Our reviews of House On Haunted Hill (1958) (published September 13th, 2005), House On Haunted Hill (1999) (published April 21st, 2000), and RiffTrax: House on Haunted Hill (published May 22nd, 2009) are also available.
Two great horror novels are adapted into two timeless horror films. With Vincent Price at the helm, the terror has just begun.
It's a celebration of the true Master of the Macabre, Vincent Price. Surely you're familiar with the two terror pictures on this double-bill, but does VCI Entertainment's ACME DVD Works do justice to them in this new release? Let the deliberations begin.
Facts of the Case
In The Last Man on Earth, Vincent Price plays Robert Morgan, a scientist who finds himself absolutely alone and desperately clinging to life itself. He is the sole survivor in a post-apocalyptic world where an incurable disease has swept across Europe, carried on the wind to decimate mankind around the globe. The fatal disease, however, causes the reanimation of the recently dead, transforming them into zombie-like vampires. Law enforcement and a mobilized National Guard vainly attempted to prevent the dead from reanimating, seizing the bodies of expired citizens and dumping them into a fiery pit. It was all to no avail, and the air-born plague soon claimed the lives of Morgan's wife, Virginia (Emma Danieli), and young daughter, Kathy (Christi Courtland). In the three years since, Morgan has continued to be immune to the disease and now shelters himself in his home, hardly able to tolerate the pounding and taunting of the undead creatures who want his blood. Leading the ghoulish assailants is Morgan's former colleague, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), a fiend intent on Morgan's destruction.
House on Haunted Hill is probably the more familiar of the two features on this disc. It recounts the horrifying events that ensue when millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) invites five people to join him and his wife at a haunted house party. Each invitee will be paid $10,000 if they survive a night in House on Haunted Hill. Jet pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) takes a liking to, and winds up the unwitting protector of, the naïve and impressionable Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig). Columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum) has some weaknesses of her own: she enjoys too many stiff drinks and has gambled herself into financial frailty. Doctor David Trent has joined the party to test his theories on the effects of psychological shock and the dangers of the hysteria that may follow. Then there's Watson Prichard (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who once spent a night in the possessed house; when they found him, he was almost dead. When he isn't telling his wide-eyed stories about the murderous ghosts who roam the house, Pritchard's steadily nursing a bottle of booze. Annabelle Loren (Carol Ohmart), fourth wife to the insanely jealous and possessive Frederick, is the final partygoer in this dreadful gathering…or is she? It's midnight, the doors are locked and the windows are barred, and now it's time to find out who else may be roaming the halls of…House on Haunted Hill!
As a double-bill, this pairing of Price chillers is top notch (sadly, the history of their DVD release quality leaves much to be desired). The source inspiration for The Last Man on Earth is immediately cited by genre aficionados as Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. The tale has been leveraged by many films, most notably serving as the foundation for George A. Romero's 1969 Night of the Living Dead and Boris Sagal's 1971 The Omega Man, the latter featuring Charlton Heston. Of the three noted here, The Last Man on Earth remains the most faithful to Matheson's original work (likely because Matheson co-wrote the screenplay under pseudonym Logan Swanson), with just the protagonist's name changed—from "Neville" to "Morgan"—and the ending spiced up a bit.
Originally, the picture was to be produced by the famed Hammer Films of Britain, but they passed on the script. This allowed producer Robert L. Lippert to send it off to Italy to be directed by Sidney Salkow with a cast with Italian actors supporting Price. Therewith stem the bulk of complaints many have leveled against the film: it's an inarguably low-budget affair that suffers from some weak supporting acting, cringe-inducing dubbing, and rather weak directing. Inexplicably, however, the film shrugs off these usually-fatal flaws and emerges as an excellent example of a brooding narrative that succinctly imparts an atmosphere of dread, despair, and a man's destitution. Credit Vincent Price for saving the film, his portrayal of Robert Morgan swinging wildly across the emotional arc. Unlike the high-powered heroics of Charlton Heston's "Neville" in the 1971 remake (the film uses the original character name but practically nothing else from the source novel), Price turns out a heart-wrenching performance of a man who has lost his family and friends, and who has been left behind to face the ultimate pain of being a lone survivor in a world overrun by the worst sort of nocturnal predator. There's something oddly compelling about The Last Man on Earth; it's a picture whose individual parts seem to be the ingredients of cinematic schlock, yet the combination of the elements turns out to be an unexpected achievement in terror cinema.
As for House on Haunted Hill, it's clearly survived to be one of the best haunted house thrillers of all time, and stands as a crowning achievement by the original Godfather of Gimmicks, William Castle. Overflowing with the spirit of P.T. Barnum, Castle was determined to give movie audiences thrills and chills beyond anything they had ever experienced, forever seeking a way to break through the two-dimensional limitations imposed by the silver screen. He wasn't interested in the enjoyable-yet-uneven 3-D process of the day, opting to nontraditionally engage the audiences who came to be scared to their wits end. Having already presented a picture with promised life insurance payouts in the event of a viewer's death (1958's Macabre), he sought to explore what audiences might do if physically confronted by a specter of death. With House on Haunted Hill, Castle introduced the effect of Emergo!, a shocking new element that would allow a fearsome fiend to break free of the movie screen and actually enter the screening auditorium (well, actually it amounted to a skeleton that would swoop over the audience at a pre-arranged point during the film's climax). Audiences laughed more than they shrieked at the effect, but they loved it nonetheless. This would serve as the impetus for numerous other such "gags" that Castle would rig for future fright films.
Thankfully, the film itself was a competent work in its own right. Unlike many 3-D films of the 1950s that lost much of their punch in the alternate 2-D format, House on Haunted Hill was probably more effective and scare-inducing without the flying skeleton. Vincent Price is at his menacing best as the erudite yet eccentric millionaire playboy Frederick Loren. With his tightly trimmed moustache, insistent brow, and piercing eyes, Loren is the enigmatic host who could just as easily be innocent as he could be guilty of a ghastly plot like that which unfolds in the foreboding house. Carol Ohmart is just as precise in her portrayal of Annabelle, Loren's current (and sole surviving) wife, who defies her husband's overpowering nature and seeks to collect his fortune in the event he might…die! The other actors all play their parts well, each character a pawn in the deadly game that's about to be played.
Similar to the first picture on this double-feature DVD, House on Haunted Hill was inspired by a novel, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. It, too, would serve as the foundation to additional films, including Robert Wise's 1963 thriller The Haunting and John Hough's 1973 adaptation The Legend of Hell House. A remake of the Castle/Price classic was churned out by William Malone in 1999, yet it was ultimately overpowered by modern day cynicism, a barrage of f-bombs, and the frantic pacing required for holding the attention of the ADD-afflicted MTV generation. The original 1959 outing, however, holds up well today, despite the dapper duds and classic coifs of the period. Again, here is another picture that is saturated with a spooky moodiness that's as engaging as they come. Yes, the acting is sometimes borderline hammy at times; but the straight-faced conviction of all involved keeps us from dismissing it as outright over-the-top melodrama. There are several clever plot devices and plenty of twists to keep your active attention. It's not the sort of ride that would frighten today's viewers out of their wits, but it's certainly a fun ride nonetheless.
Well, these two particular Vincent Price horror vehicles are clearly roaming the ether of the Land of Public Domain (along with their closest next-of-kin, Night of the Living Dead), since seemingly anyone with a DVD burner and a few cartons of Amaray keep-cases seems to release one or both of these bygone classics on DVD on a quarterly basis.
This new release from VCI Entertainment, delivered under the budget label of ACME DVD Works, is a rather amateurish effort. It's sad that the bargain disc imprints regularly pick on these two fine films, using them as quick-turn material. If you think you've seen this particular double-feature before, you have. Diamond Entertainment released the same pairing on a single disc in 2000 on their low-cost, low-quality offering. This new disc from ACME looks pretty bad, both pictures sporting smeared and detail-deficient transfers. The contrast is barely existent in many sequences and the black levels sometimes bleed so badly that you'd swear your home monitor was in need of repair. Both pictures are offered in their original widescreen aspect ratios, but neither has been anamorphically enhanced. The audio suffers similarly; both films are presented in murky Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes that, while they are intelligible, are often muffled and marred by hissing and crackling (unfortunately, this doesn't enhance the atmosphere of horror for either picture). As for extras, there is a compilation of several William Castle trailers that is enjoyable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a shame these two fine films have been so poorly presented in what would have otherwise been a must-have disc. The good news is that both films are currently available in concurrent release from other studios. The best version of The Last Man on Earth available today comes from Madacy Entertainment's 2003 release, one that sports a much cleaner widescreen transfer with a noticeably improved audio track; it's bargain priced at around $5.00 (and sometimes much less). As for House on Haunted Hill, you'll find roughly 20 concurrent releases of that title, but the best is Warner Brother's release from 1999 that features a re-mastered image presented in both anamorphic widescreen and full frame transfers. The audio on that disc comes by way of a crisper Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. While it gives me little pleasure in reviewing one studio's disc only to go on and recommend the products from others, the simple fact is that both of these films deserve to be seen in the best way possible—and, sadly, that excludes this ACME release.
These are two terrific terror films that should be enjoyed by anyone with a love of classic horror. At a bargain bin price, this disc from ACME DVD Works has some value, I suppose, yet the films within deserve much better treatment. My best recommendation is to seek out the titles individually as noted above; they're still reasonably priced, and when it comes to Vincent Price, it's money well spent.
The folks at VCI Entertainment are off to an unsteady start with this new ACME DVD Works release. The court hereby gives notice that ACME will be on probation and any future offenses like this will be met with swift and decisive action.
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Scales of Justice, House On Haunted Hill
Perp Profile, House On Haunted Hill
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, House On Haunted Hill
• William Castle Trailer Compilation
Scales of Justice, The Last Man On Earth
Perp Profile, The Last Man On Earth
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Last Man On Earth
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