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Sunday, March 03, 2019

What Scared The Roof Off In 1959

A Nerve Test For The Bravest Only

Would be great if I could write of House On Haunted Hill scaring pants off me at age five, but alas, I wasn’t there when the Liberty played it, though legend was passed down by others of the neighborhood lucky enough to have seen William Castle’s spook-fest and the “Emergo” process that launched a skeleton past heads of a screaming audience (less screaming than jeering, actually, where they weren’t trying to yank the prop down or disable it with thrown detritus). You had to be present then to embrace House On Haunted Hill now. There will come a day when no one is left to speak of Emergo from first-hand knowledge, just as there is scant testimony as to how great a cowboy Fred Thomson was. When does nostalgia finally wear itself out? House On Haunted Hill was sixty years ago. I can be objective in part for having missed it theatrically. Where we first see a classic does matter. Matters a lot. House On Haunted Hill for me was a 1965 Saturday morning, as bright indoors as out, Channel 8 from High Point chopping down a totem built by those who guaranteed me that here was hands-down a scariest film yet. Had I been kidded along, or did they lack my thick skin for screen thrills? 1959 being six years past seemed far longer --- was its viewership more fragile? I’d now go smug among peers who lacked my fortitude in the face of fear.

Rare, Pricey, Desirable Poster Today --- Will It Stay That Way?

Price Poses For Key Art --- Posters Will Later Add a Dismembered Head To His Accessories
Poster art for House On Haunted Hill was inspired, beyond that even. There’s good reason why sheets routinely sell in the thousands … as in dollars … for a 1959 release. You won’t see memorabilia from Hound Dog Man moving like this. What makes merchandising magical? In this case, artist Reynold Brown perhaps. He’s famed for design of horror and sci-fi posters. Vincent Price holding a candle in one hand, a dismembered head in the other. Not in the film, but it sure captures the spirit of House On Haunted Hill. A skeleton dangling a hanged woman was stuff of boy dreams that Brown fulfilled (yikes, what does that say about boys?). Given an original one-sheet, wouldn’t you display it on a den wall for all guests to see? (or auction it for the grand or two you’d easily get) Collectors who scarfed this stuff in the 60/70’s when it was cheap bought better pensions than employers supplied. Of all dumb or peculiar things we fans do, hoarding posters isn’t one of them. This is art, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Variety estimated $1.5 million in domestic rentals for House On Haunted Hill. Foreign, which they did not address, may have doubled that total. Think of gravy this was for bare minimum William Castle spent on the negative. Alfred Hitchcock noticed, and by all accounts was pea green, Psycho his effort to beat House On Haunted Hill at a shock game. Then Castle copied him with Straight-Jacket, Homicidal, more. Hitchcock came to realize that he would have to play horror’s game. He had not forgotten the “Blood Punch” reception that Paramount staged for Vertigo. The late 50’s made everyone monster mad, so filmmakers played, or did without (profits). Hitchcock and others of exalted status must have thought the show world had itself gone a little mad. Even Gary Cooper finished on a fake-Psycho where he might be the knife killer, us watching The Naked Edge now and wondering whose kooky idea that was. Bill Castle was happily unburdened by needs to maintain dignity, hiding peas under shells and letting us pay to guess which one. Surely this man died with a fortune. I hope so, because he was a maestro showman (but not a generous one … read writer Robb White’s interview w/ Tom Weaver in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes).

Vincent Price should have had an Academy Award for knowing exactly how to pilot material like this. I watched House On Haunted Hill again this week and marveled at how great he was. The man could be sinister and subtly send the thing up, in short scare kids and amuse parents, or more specifically teens who got fill-up of horror hosts they stayed up late for. Price was forever hep because he understood the mood of generations behind his. He was the coolest old guy making spook faces (age 47 when he did HOHH). I admire the way Price worked like a dog so he could collect more art. Let Castle’s direction be leaden so long as Price is there to purr lines and warn viewers that they might not survive a night in his ghost mansion. The kick we forget, even between repeat looks, is that there is no for-real risen dead in House On Haunted Hill. As with so much of movies, it is human agency behind what appears supernatural. A cheat? You could argue that, but so long as a skip-to-lou skeleton pushes Carol Ohmart into an acid bath, who cares if Price ends up working the strings? (further detail omitted, and yes, this is a ludicrous plot device) There’s an old witch with white eyes that turns out to be a “caretaker,” so why does she assume fright pose and glide toward ingenue Carolyn Craig as if on roller skates. It won’t bear scrutiny, but OMG, the effect.

Above Puts Lie To Notion That Grown-Ups Avoided House On Haunted Hill in 1959

Fun aspects of House On Haunted Hill were what counted most. “Emergo” as practiced on first-run audiences at least taught smallest fry the meaning of the word, or did they go through primary grades thinking we “emergoed,” or were “emergoing” from adjacent classrooms? How do you un-teach lessons driven in by sledgehammers at a Bill Castle screening? FYI for those slumming but briefly at Greenbriar (the rest know all too well): Emergo was where a skeleton was slid down a rope and over heads of patronage. A 50’s showman told me that the trick was to keep it out of reach to grubby and grasping hands. Imagine the badge of honor accorded to those who could bring a skeleton down. There may be trophies yet in unnamed attics. Was it worth the guff for exhibs to rig the silly things up? Probably so, as we can but imagine word-of-mouth those skeletons inspired. In case anyone was misled to take House On Haunted Hill serious, there were cartoon ads to disabuse them (or abuse in event too mature customers went to see the movie). The gag was used before on William Castle’s Macabre, then purloined by others for The Stranglers Of Bombay, The Wasp Woman, heaven knows what others, above being ones I found for HOHH. Looked to me like the same artist did them all. Make no mistake then, House On Haunted Hill is a classic, all the more so now that it plays TCM in HD and available on Blu-Ray as part of the Vincent Price Collection --- Volume Two. Sit close to the screen when you watch, for it looks best that way, but don’t let toes get too near the acid bath.


Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Only thing I dislike about HAUNTED is Craig`s screams. She just becomes super annoying.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

I too was eleven when it played in '65 on New York's WOR Channel 9's "Million Dollar Movie" about seven to ten times during its week-long run. My brother Jimmy and I watched it every time we could and were completely terrified with each viewing. The skeleton and the woman screaming and the vat of acid -- Yikes! Later in life, my colleagues and I used the shot of screaming Carol Ohmart repeatedly in an episode of the animated cartoon series "Freakazoid," which (in a tribute to William Castle) was presented in "Scream-O-Vision."

4:45 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

My absolute favorite film of this type is Paul Leni's THE CAT AND THE CANARY which I first saw in 8mm and it scared the yell out of me. Love everything about it. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL has always left me cold. Great marketing. Great salesmanship. Only problem is, as the ads used to say, "Where's the beef?"

8:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff checks in on behalf of poster collecting:

Dear John:

"Of all dumb or peculiar things we fans do, hoarding posters isn’t one of them. This is art, and don’t let anyone tell you different."

Thanks for that, sir.

-- Griff

9:27 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Castle gimmicks live on, sort of, at theme parks. Disney and Universal have done several 3-D movie attractions, variously punched up with scents, spritzes of water, "smoke", costumed performers walking in the theater and interacting with the film, animatronic figures, and most persuasively, rows of air jets that simulate mice scooting past your legs. "It's Tough to Be a Bug" comes closest to classic Emergo, with big spiders dropping from the ceiling at one point.

3:19 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

First Screening of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL for me, was, attending a first-run premiere at a downtown picture palace, and yes--scares galore! Later, at a local neighborhood theater, it always booked on the Saturday 'KIDS' matinee series thru the years, and ALWAYS commanded lines around the corner and down the street with kids screaming and waiting to get to the ticket booth before the show sold out! Had to get there early for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL! Sometimes the old grizzled and nerve-wracked theater manager would risk food and drink thrown at him when he asked kids to clear the theater so they could squeeze in a 2nd show before the regular weekly 'double-bill' was ready to go for a very tired projectionist, who had to have THAT threaded up by 6:45! He was also having to have to rewind a dozen cartoons (twice), along with a couple of STOOGES shorts and a serial chapter as well! Reaction indeed was the SAME for other popular MATINEE favorites at the time (1959-60. They included THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and another re-release of the EXTREMELY POPULAR ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1938 version).The excitement of being in yesteryear's AUDIENCE and their reaction-in-theaters, is rather a difficult thing to explain to folks today--over a half century later... Oh, yes! A poster-crazy young collector purchased a 1-sheet of HOUND DOG MAN that year, grooving towards the 'FABULOUS FABE' (FABIAN) rather than the choice of his 1-sheet poster-collecting friend-- who chose to buy... (@50 cents each at the time!)...HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL......

1:34 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

No one interested in the art of hucksterism can ignore William Castle. He ads for all his films exemplify the art of selling movies.

The wonderful thing is that we, the public, have such short memories.

I remember those Saturday matinees. They cost a dime. When the guy in my home town (Chipman, New Brunswick) tried to raise the price by a nickel the mothers rioted.

We got more for 10 cents that folks get now for $20.00.

The theater sat 300. The most that could be made was $30.00. Selling popcorn was a necessity.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had the all time greatest "emergo." I've written about this here before. For a screening of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS HE WOLFMAN at Rochdale College in Toronto (where the consumption of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote was a regular thing) I used a huge sheet of artist's backdrop paper for a screen. Behind it I had a friend dressed up as the Frankenstein monsters (thank God for Don Post masks). I spliced a piece of black leader into the fight between the monsters so that I could jam it in the gate causing the black leader to burn. At that point flames appeared on the screen the the Frankenstein monster tore through it while I, dressed as the wolfman, entered from the side door. We duked it out. Most of the audience was so stoned they did not know what the Hell was happening.

The absolute best "emergo" was when I bought a pigeon from a local market which I then let loose in the screening space at the end of THE BIRDS. Some folks wet themselves.

The best audience participation was when Xaviera Hollander, the "Happy Hooker" came to see "DEEP THROAT" at Rochdale. My projectionist, Bobby Naismith, received from her what heads of state had paid fortunes for.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I love the photo with the audience having huge grins on their faces as the skeleton flies over their heads. Everyone looks like they're having a ball

9:30 AM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

Saw "House on Haunted Hill" as an 8-year-old in 1959 in High Point, NC. The skeleton surprised me as I had no knowledge of such going into the theater. I've always loved the movie, but the Emergo gimmick did not add much at the screening I attended.

9:42 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

I am proud to say that HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is the only horror film I ever saw that made me pee my pants in fright. It was the scene in which the white-headed witch emerged from the darkness, baring her teeth and claws, causing the heroine to scream.

Hey, look, cut me some slack, I was only five years old...

1:08 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

As an 8 year old film critic I had felt ripped off by the ending of MACABRE a year earlier. MACABRE, if I remember correctly, had a running clock toward the end that promised something gruesome or at least startling was going to happen. Nada. HOHH delivered. As some posters mentioned the scares on-screen were more genuine than the gimmick. Dad and I saw it in our packed, cavernous local RKO theatre. The audience reaction was just as pictured-nervous laughter (and thanks for posting those pix.)

8:26 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

First saw this on late-night TV when I was 10, and had to turn it off in the first 20 minutes I was so scared. Fastforward a couple of decades, and I'm watching it at the Film Forum in New York, complete with the Emergo gimmick. I've never laughed so hard in a movie theater.

Fastforward another couple of decades, and my wife, daughter and I are visiting a friend in L.A., where he drives us to the Frank Lloyd Wright house where the movie supposedly takes place. A week later, we rented "House on Haunted Hill" on DVD. My daughter, probably around 15, not only enjoyed it but said it could have been longer.

I think its short length works to its advantage. The story is silly, and the contraption Price wears is beyond ridiculous. All I remember thinking is that he didn't have to go to such absurd lengths to do whatever it is he wanted (I still can't remember what it was exactly). But yes, "House on Haunted Hill" is fun, and Price obviously knew how to roll with it.

10:42 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I love this film. The opening narration by Vincent Price makes me SO happy every time I watch it. Not a good film fun film. Of course my generation had quite the love for Vincent Price.

"The ghosts are moving tonight, restless... hungry. May I introduce myself? I'm Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I'll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people, including my brother, have been murdered in it. Since then, I've owned the house. I only spent one night then and when they found me in the morning, I... I was almost dead."

1:22 PM  

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