William Castle is the king of horror. His ouevre includes cinematic paradigms like Thirteen Ghosts, Homicidal, and even Rosemary's Baby (as producer). Much of his fame originated from his elaborate marketing stunts. For the release of House on Haunted Hill, Castle mirrored the film's skeleton rising from a vat of acid by having a plastic skeleton emerge from the audience. This cheap but effective stunt made the cinematic viewing experience that much more enjoyable. But now, over 50 years later, what makes me come back to House on Haunted Hill?
The concept itself is highly relatable: a group of strangers are each offered $10,000 to spend the night in a haunted house. Keep in mind that this is roughly $80,000 today! Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg or Kanye West made you this offer -- would you refuse? The fact that this group is comprised of strangers adds to the tension; no one -- not even the married couple of Frederick (Vincent Prince) and Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) -- is able to rest or rely on anyone when things start to get scary.
More importantly, Castle knows how to construct a solid horror film. Some of the most critical parts are contrast and shadows. Like the German Expressionists before him, Castle includes numerous takes of long shadows to unease. Sometimes this is subtle, like in group shots, but it's much more overt when individuals are split off from the group while investigating paranormal activity. The best example of this is when Nora (Carolyn Craig) is searching a closet in the cellar. She appears in high contrast as she pats the wall in search of a hidden door, her long shadow splayed against the wall. As she turns, a terrifying creature has moved into the range of her shadow, shocking both Nora and the viewer.
Although some aspects of the movie are outdated -- the focus on hysteria as a medical condition, the ridiculous music -- the ghost story and the charms of Vincent Price are timeless. House on Haunted Hill proves that you don't need fancy CGI or graphic violence to make a chilling movie; sometimes, realism is the scariest concept of all.