Octoberween is FINALLY here. I find myself greatly anticipating it at the start of every November, and suffering the whips and scorns of the next eleven months just to get another one. What glee there is in the devilry, the macabre, the costumes, the candy! Might I yet contain myself? I’ll emote no further, and beg pardon for my outburst of excitement.
I’ve decided upon a theme for this year, a common linking element to unite my four Halloween articles this month. Though I could have picked a single monster, or perhaps a subgenre of horror, or a particular era, I directed my attention instead to one of the great masters of the craft: not a director, not a writer, but an actor, indeed one of the truest loves a horror fan may ever know (because horror fans lead sad, lonely lives, by stereotype): the one, the only Vincent Price. That’s right: Octoberween is Vincent Price month for Second Breakfast. I’ve reviewed a couple of films in the past, Much Ado About Murder and Masque of the Red Death, but why stop there? Let’s begin with one of his most classic roles.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The Plot: Eccentric Millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his opportunistic, suspiciously sarcastic wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) decide on a whim to host a haunted house party inviting only five complete strangers as guests, and offering a generous party favor of ten thousand dollars to anyone brave enough to spend the entire night in… the House on Haunted Hill, the eerie site of not one, not two, but in fact seven grisly and highly unusual murders, including death by acid bath, and total dismemberment (two of the heads were never found)! How many more names will be added to impressive death toll? I’d be surprised if the number was zero.
This is a straight-up B movie. Back in the day, studios differentiated between A and B movies and intentionally made some of both category. B movies were usually screened as double-features, which meant they were usually very short (between an hour and eighty minutes or so). House on Haunted Hill runs about seventy-five minutes long, and what you are about to read is not a comment I often make about any movies, but it needed to be at least fifteen minutes longer, if not thirty. For nearly the entire way through, they’re operating from a cliché basis, but they develop it in the most engaging ways possible. The mystery is really quite compelling, and at times the scares are genuinely creepy. Alas, few of these strands are developed into full arcs, due to the abbreviated runtime. Rather than following the natural course of the horror and the mystery, the writers got to page sixty and then realized that they needed to wrap things up immediately. The solution isn’t bad, but it is unsatisfying given how engaging the rest of the story was.
House on Haunted Hill offers a wonderful role to Vincent Price, who, true to form, makes it even better than it was on the page. As the host of this sinister soiree, he is everyone’s favorite suspect when things start going amiss. I mean, eccentric millionaire who rents a haunted house so he can play expensive tricks on a bunch of complete strangers? Sounds a bit villainous to me. Usually that means he’s either the first to go, or he’s the killer. So, while this does allow him to be splendidly creepy, he also plays an equal part in the investigation with the guests. That means that either he is as unaware and frightened as they are, or he’s lying to fuel some ingenious master plan. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but Price keeps us all guessing and wondering.
It’s this commitment to his craft that makes him such an unusual actor of the genre. Hey, horror actors, raise your hand if you would have just picked one or the other. That’s what I thought. Despite the short runtime and forced conclusion, it’s unsurprising that House on Haunted Hill is widely regarded as one of Price’s most quintessentially Price roles. I’d consider it an excellent introduction to him for the unfamiliar. He balances wit and charm, suspicion and fear, menace and morbidity, forming the character type for which he became best known: the vaguely threatening, somewhat off-putting, otherwise captivating leading man with that voice. How does someone growing up in St. Louis develop a voice like that? How does someone growing up anywhere develop a voice like that?
Anyway, now that I’ve managed to include a couple paragraphs fan-girling over this poor chap, let’s move on. Watch House on Haunted Hill, because it’s a great little haunted house film to get you in the mood for Halloween, and if you’re unfamiliar with Vincent Price, it’s an excellent film to start with. Stay tuned in following weeks for more awesome Price roles!