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Legend Films presents
"They'll be food and drink, and a few murders. And you're invited."
DVD ReviewThough it technically isn't much of a horror film, House on Haunted Hill was really one of the first forays into the genre for prolific director William Castle (13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, Strait-Jacket) who up until its release in 1958 had logged time cranking out a ton of period piece dramas (The Saracen Blade, Slaves of Babylon, Drums of Tahiti). Castle would eventually come to be almost synonymous with the art of carnival-like promotion for his films, something that also started with House on Haunted Hill (theaters were equipped with a skeleton that would swoop down on a wire over the audience) but kicked in with the release the following year of The Tingler (a vibrating device connected to theater seats that would "shock" viewers at appropriate times).
Castle really knew how to sell a product, so with this Legend release of House on Haunted Hill it almost seems fitting that there's a gimmick of sorts, in this case colorization (though a black-and-white print is also included on this disc). Yet adding color doesn't really change the campiness of the film for the better, because it's still the hammy story of a creepy millionaire (Vincent Price) and his reluctant wife (Carol Ohmart) who invite, or rather dare, five strangers (Richard Long, Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook, Alan Marshal, Julie Mitchum) to spend a night in the titular house in order to win $10,000. There isn't really much in the way of any haunting that goes on, with much of the time spent with Long and Craig investigating rooms, bumping their heads and/or screaming, while Elisha Cook is left to drink heavily and utter dire warnings about severed heads.
The oily cool of Vincent Price, who was also just moving into his horror period at the time, manages to carry House on Haunted Hill through its many rough spots, and without him this film would have been utterly weightless. Price is one of those performers whose speaking voice and appearance were larger and more dramatic than his acting talent, and for the late 1950s he was the perfect casting choice by Castle. Price is stuck with some godawful dialogue, but he imbues it with a proper level of deliberate, veiled menace.
Even with bubbling acid baths, guns stored in tiny coffins, organs that play by themselves and the aforementioned severed heads, Castle seems to be spread thin even at 75 minutes, forced to rely on going over the same territory repeatedly until things move into the hokey payoff that largely discounts the entire premise of the film. Yet for all the structural foibles, it is fun to watch Price hold court, even amidst the heroic blandness of Richard Long or the bug-eyed line reads of Elisha Cook. Carol Ohmart is the only who holds her own against Price as his sexy, but distant wife Annabelle. Her character at least has some sultry gumption to work with.
If you grew up with films like this, you'll know that this is maybe not William Castle's crowning glory. But there is still some kind of lopsided appeal here, perhaps more a blend of hazy nostalgia than actual entertainment that provides unintentional B-movie chuckles rather than the intended chills.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: Both the colorized and black-and-white versions are presented in 1.33:1 fullframe, which the backcover claims is the original theatrical aspect ratio, though a 1999 Warner release carried a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Legend's colorization process is far less obtrusive or gimmicky looking than some earlier attempts (are you listening Ted Turner?), but my one complaint is that the coloring is very soft, almost faded. It does, however, to its credit, remain consistent throughout, and the muted hues are subtle so the film isn't an unnatural explosion of color. Things like the bubbling acid bath or Carol Ohmart's flowing turquoise nightie, which is not such a distraction on the original black-and-white print, really stands out.
Call me a purist, but I really prefer the black-and-white print, because there is just something endearing about the varying levels of blacks, grays and whites used in this haunted house story to convey genre-centric emotion and mood. I'm just glad Legend has given viewers a choice. And the restored print here offers a decent degree of image detail, and nice contrast levels. Castle may not have been a cinematic auteur, but I do think black-and-white is really the way to appreciate something like this.
Both versions suffer some minor age-related nicking, and some of the exterior shots look rather grainy, but the overall presentation is solid for a campy B-movie over 45 years old.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Nothing fancy about the English language Dolby Digital mono track, though it works just fine. Not much in the way of any measurable frequency range to speak of, but dialogue is always discernible and clear, with Carolyn Craig's frequent bouts of screaming sounding clean and relatively crackle free.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, Reefer Madness, The Three Stooges In Color
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Mike Nelson
Extras Review: Time to dispense with any modicum of seriousness, because Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson provides a commentary track (available for both the black-and-white and colorized versions), and like he did on MST3k, he spends 75 minutes more or less just poking fun at the dialogue and acting, such as the wallbanging ineptitude of Richard Long's character or constantly referring to Elisha Cook as a leprechaun. It's silly stuff, and there are a lot of silent gaps, but I laughed out loud a number of times. Not quite as strong as a good MST3k ep, though Nelson still delivers some good jabs.
The Original Press Book (02m:24s) is look at the assorted poster art and promotional material for the film, while Legend Colorization (02m:57s) offers a sampling of the various titles that received the new process.
A pair of House on Haunted Hill trailers, and few other Legend titles, are also included.
The disc is cut into 12 chapters.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsIt's a neat premise that is hammily acted and pays off with a Scooby-Doo ending, but there is an undeniable charm to William Castle's goofy haunted house flick, much of which is the presence of Vincent Price. The colorization by Legend, which is the hook for this release, is pleasing and hardly obtrusive, though they earn high marks for providing the black-and-white version here, as well.
And a Mike Nelson commentary is there to just tip it in.
Even though it's hardly a "great" film, this Legend release still comes recommended.
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