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There’s always more going on than meets the eye… especially when Vincent Price is hanging around.

DVD Review: House On Haunted Hill – 50th Anniversary Special Edition (1959)

There will be food, and drink, and ghosts for all — and perhaps a few murders.

With the original House On Haunted Hill having been released on VHS and DVD for a total of umpteen million times in the past 20 years or so, the arrival of yet another DVD release may leave some of you banging your head up against the wall in frustration. Fear not, though; Johnny Legend and his Raunchy Tonk label have bypassed the whole greed angle that many get-rich-quick DVD distributors commonly rely upon and has produced this new 50th Anniversary Special Edition with an entirely different motive in mind — an actual love for the movie.

For those of you who, for some bizarre reason, have never seen or heard of House On Haunted Hill (and it would be pretty hard to have not heard of it considering it spawned a remake — which in turn spawned a sequel), allow me to elucidate. It’s the epitome of late-'50s “fun” horror movies that parents and kiddies alike flocked to see. In it, an eccentric millionaire (the always hammy but never disappointing Vincent Price) and his bored wife (Carol Ohmart a few years away of reaching B horror queen status in Jack Hill’s immortal Spider Baby) invites five people (Richard Long, Carolyn Craig, Alan Marshall, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Julie Mitchum) to spend the night in the titular mansion. Should they survive through the night, they will each earn $10,000. It sounds easy — but there’s always more going on than meets the eye… especially when Vincent Price is hanging around.

Aside from being a hoot (both intentionally and unintentionally if you can believe it), House On Haunted Hill is also one of several films produced and directed by William Castle, a motion picture pioneer who was a true showman in every sense of the word. Castle was the type of feller who always had a clever way of luring audiences in to see his latest masterpieces: gimmicks. Take his epic 1958 classic Macabre for instance — your admission to the movie included a special insurance policy issued by Lloyd’s of London should you die of fright during the movie. Another highlight in Castle’s gimmick days was 1959’s The Tingler — a process known as “Percepto” featured hidden speakers that would let out blood-curdling shrieks; rolling bean bags were employed to race down the theater floor; and, most notable of all, a few theater seats were rigged to vibrate when the action on screen was taking place.

House On Haunted Hill’s gimmick was known as “Emergo.” Towards the climax of the film, a skeleton rises out of a vat of acid. At this point, a wire-mounted skeleton would appear in the theater auditorium and float over the heads of the audience, before retreating back when the on-screen skeleton did. Reportedly, a screening of the film included a realistic-looking (and heavy) skeleton that proved too much for the wires to hold, causing the prop to fall onto a critic. After the screening, theater owners used inflatable skeletons which soon became a hit with the kids in the audience — particularly the ones with sling shots. Speaking of hits, it didn’t take long for House On Haunted Hill to make some moolah at the box office, something William Castle’s idol, a guy named Alfred Hitchcock, soon noticed, inspiring him to make some movie called Psycho the following year.

So anyway, back to the 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD. Johnny Legend has remastered the movie and presented it in its original black-and-white form (no colorization here, kids!) with an anamorphic 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which preserves more image information than the previously released 1.85:1 widescreen releases. The picture itself looks fine (with some debris), although the matted image isn’t quite as crisp as the older Legend or Warner releases. The mono stereo sound comes through admirably, with only the occasional hiss or noise.

But what makes House On Haunted Hill: 50th Anniversary Special Edition really worth your while is that is actually has more bonus material on it than the other DVD releases. The special features begin with two back-to-back theatrical trailers (2:51) featuring a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer and a full-frame TV spot (the latter of which advertises the “Emergo” gimmick). Next up is “Return To The House” (3:45) which finds Johnny Legend outside of the famous Ennis Brown House used in the film (as well as many other films). Johnny starts off with a little history of the house (it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), goes on to discuss the “Emergo” phenomena, and the brief featurette finishes off with a gimmick trailer for Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Thrill Killers (aka The Maniacs Are Loose), which deserves a special footnote in B-movie history as being one of the few trailers ever to depict nothing more than close-ups of the movie poster.

A collection of movie trailers showcasing some of William Castle and Vincent Price’s hit and misses is contained in “Castle & Price Previews” (26:53). A “William Castle TV Spot” (1:58) gives us a rare look at a Castle-created television program entitled The Plot Thickens, wherein a sultry hostess passes down a black cat named Lucifer through the guest panel (including Jan Sterling and Groucho Marx!) and onto the show’s host, Jack Linkletter. Unfortunately, only the beginning of this episode is included, and ends (abruptly) with a still capture of Castle’s credit.

The assortment of groovy special features continues with a short “Carol Ohmart Profile” (3:40), with Johnny Legend discussing the former actress's short-lived career, and speculating with director Jack Hill and Hollywood Book and Poster owner Eric Caidin as to where the elusive Ohmart may be residing nowadays. Clips from Carol’s filmography are spliced in for good measure.

Rounding up the bonus materials is “Golden Age Price” (49:17), a compilation of Vincent Price television appearances, commencing with several sketches from The Jack Benny Program and The Red Skelton Show, and concluding with an entire episode of TV Reader’s Digest from 1955, wherein the venerable British actor stars in “The Brainwashing Of John Hayes” as an American citizen in Communist China.

Even if you’re not impressed to see another release of House On Haunted Hill make its way to DVD, this new 50th Anniversary Special Edition (pardon the pun) "houses" a lot of heart — and the assortment of special features beats any other release out there.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the alter-ego of a feller who loves an eclectic variety of classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) film and television. He currently lives in Northern California with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.

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