Released in 1959, House on Haunted Hill was produced by William Castle, and for those not familiar with this flamboyant producer, Castle was as much a showman as he was a filmmaker. Many of his “promotions” have since become legendary. For example, he once handed out certificates for a $1,000 life insurance policy in case anyone in the audience “died of fright” while watching his movie. Of course, Castle didn't really need any gimmicks with House on Haunted Hill, because he had a pretty strong draw already in it's star, horror legend Vincent Price, who delivers one of his juiciest performances.
Millionaire Fredrick Loren (Price) has invited 5 people to join him and his wife (Carol Ohmart) at a party being held in what Loren's been promised is a genuine haunted house. The guests are Psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), newspaper columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), The house's owner, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), and Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), an employee in one of Loren's companies . As an added bonus, Loren has promised to pay $10,000 to anyone who can spend the entire night in the house (which is bolted shut at midnight and not re-opened until 8 am). All of the guests, with the exception of the house's owner, believe they're in for an easy pay-day, but the House on Haunted Hill holds a few surprises for them, and when the doors re-open in the morning, some of the guests won't be walking out.
Trust me when I tell you this is one creepy house. It's owner, Watson Pritchard (played with genuine gloom and doom by the always reliable Elisha Cook Jr.), warns everyone that they're in for the most terrifying night of their lives. “There's been a murder almost everywhere in the house” he says at one point, and claims time and again that the ghosts of those killed are now the real owners. Pritchard begs Loren to cancel the party, and implores any of the other guests who'll listen to leave immediately. It's not long after the doors are bolted that some of them wish they'd heeded his warning. The ceilings drip blood, doors slam closed by themselves, and there's even a pool of acid hidden below a portion of the floor in the basement. But this isn't even the half of it. Crammed into 75 short minutes, House on Haunted Hill has a number of scenes that will simply scare the hell out of you.
Vincent Price is at his most mysterious in House on Haunted Hill. Shielded at all times by a sarcastic temperament, we're never really sure what his character knows, and what he doesn't know. It's obvious he's assembled these people for a reason, but is the house getting the better of him, too? Is he the one pulling the strings, or is he as helpless as everybody else? House on Haunted Hill keeps us guessing right up to the end, yet this mystery is but a single piece in what turns out to be a very scary, very entertaining puzzle.