House on Haunted Hill (Allied Artists, 1959)
In 2019 (aka “the Time Before”) one of the quintessential horror movies of our time celebrated its 60th birthday. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal and Julia Mitchum was not only critically acclaimed in its own time, but still has an 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes today. Filmed for $200K over the course of 14 days in 1958, the film has netted over $1.5M and counting, thanks to video rentals and streaming. Ironically, its 40th anniversary remake in 1999, starring Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen cost $37M to make and has only netted $43M to date worldwide, making the original House proportionally the clear winner with fans.
What you may not know is the many ground-breaking elements of the film which still influence entertainment and promotion today. To start, director William Castle was the original master of guerilla marketing. His technique first appeared with his movie Macabre (1958) but due to its success, it was replicated with House a year later. Mr. Castle offered $1,000 Lloyd’s of London insurance policies for those brave enough to watch his horror film. However, if anyone with the policy by the died of fright during the movie, that person’s next of kin would be paid $1,000. In addition to this, Castle had select theater owners station nurses in their lobbies and park hearses outside. Castle himself said it was a shame no one actually expired during his movies as it would have been exceptional publicity. Today, directors such as J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom) have taken such gimmicks even further to promote their films. Just Google the name of the movie and “guerilla marketing” to see the examples.
Master promoter, director William Castle
Next, the film’s opening introduced the theater jump scare. Prior to the start of House, theaters were plunged into complete darkness, accompanied by horrible noises echoing around and originating from different points of the theater. At the time, this was a heady and horrifying stunt that eventually morphed into other “blackout” experiences, primarily in theme parks and live theaters. The House audience was then treated to both a spooky warning from Watson Pritchard and an eerie invitation from Frederick Loren, which, in the total blackness, highlighted the spine-tingling musical score of composers Von Dexter and Richard Kayne. The chillingly melodic introduction inspired entire record albums filled with nothing but ghostly sound effects and music. From that point forward, compilation albums of frightening sounds and atmospheric music were used at parties and haunted houses all over the country. For a recent example, see my besties over at Midnight Syndicate.
Carol Ohmart in House on Haunted Hill
Finally, House is where director Castle premiered the 4D movie experience he named “Emergo.” By 1959 audiences had grown weary of the poor-quality 3D movies of the mid-fifties, and Castle was looking for a way to up the ante. The Emergo experience during House had theater owners of select cinemas assembling pulley systems to hoist a plastic skeleton into the air near the viewing screen. During the final sequence, the character of Loren (Price) exacts revenge on his wife with a sadistic skeletal marionette. At that same moment, the prop skeleton flew across the theater, just over the heads of audience members.
4D theater at its best…
Castle went on to use Emergo to great effect later that same year in his move The Tingler, about a lobster-like creature that causes death by fear. Castle had theater owners rig several chairs with electric buzzers. He then placed a female “plant” in the audience to collapse into hysterics at the climax of the film, just as audiences were told by the on-screen narrator that the tingler had escaped into their theater and the audiences’ chairs “tingled.” Though Castle used a variety of Emergo effects to great success in several subsequent movies, the concept did not translate into modern times, likely for fear of lawsuits. However, theaters around the country often trot out Emergos during Halloween film festivals, and haunted attractions everywhere still employ Castle techniques in their attractions.
Check out the awesome original House on Haunted Hill trailer below, and listen for the screams that audiences heard in the dark, at the beginning of the trailer.
Then (if you dare) watch the entire black and white film in HD for free on YouTube here. You can see for yourself why, after seeing House, Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to try his hand at a horror movie, giving birth to Psycho.