Mousetrap: The Truly Terrifying Story in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
6 October 2013
An old woman—haggard, blind, with a sneer, and fingers, like claws, up in the air—wheeled around on a dolly. A woman’s severed head, savage-looking, in a suitcase. The brief appearance of a werewolf’s arm reaching out to grab an innocent girl in the night. And, of course, a dancing skeleton. These are the ghosts and ghouls that haunt William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has now slipped into American cinema’s consciousness as a low-budget, B-rate horror classic.
But, what is so scary about the old woman, a head, a hairy arm, and a skeleton? Not much. In fact, these three props look as foolish as they may read here in print. In fact, from the onset, the audience rests assured that this “house on haunted hill” is, probably, not actually haunted, that these apparitions are staged hoaxes, complete with visible strings to prove their staging. And, if this is the case, what is so remarkable about House on Haunted Hill? Why, over 50 years later, is this film still considered a horror classic?
The truth may be that, while these staged hoaxes may, initially, seem like the elements in House on Haunted Hill designed to terrify its audience, the film’s true horror value is in something much different, and something completely unrelated to the paranormal.
When boiled down to its core (in a large underground pool of acid), House on Haunted Hill is not about the paranormal; House on Haunted Hill is about a serial killer, and his name is Frederick Loren (Vincent Price). Married three times before, all to wives who have met early demises, Frederick, wealthy beyond compare, rents the house on haunted hill for his newest wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), to have a party in. Annabelle, however, is no angel; she is plotting the murder of her rich husband just as he, simultaneously, plots her death. All the other characters there are pawns in Frederick’s wicked game of homicidal chess.
To get away with murdering his wife he has to have witnesses. He chooses his setting, a haunted house, and fills it carefully. Nora (Carolyn Craig), the sweet, innocent, young woman completely willing to believe the mansion is actually haunted. Furthermore, Watson (Elisha Cook Jr.), who owns the house on haunted hill, is also a believer of the paranormal. He and Nora combined serve Frederick well; should he need witnesses to corroborate Annabelle’s murder was a ghoulish accident, these two characters will be his alibi.
Moreover, Ruth (Julie Mitchum) and Lance (Richard Long) are prime witnesses, too. Although both of these characters are less likely to believe in paranormal activity, and they are both relatively insightful and clever, they are both in desperate need of money. Because Frederick offers all of his guests $10,000 to spend a night in the house on haunted hill, Ruth and Lance’s financial needs will allow Frederick to get away with just about anything. Put another way, Ruth and Lance cannot bite the hand that feeds them, so, for a mere $10,000, they make perfect witnesses for Frederick’s homicide sleepover.
The last guest is David (Alan Marshal), who the audience learns is having an affair with Annabelle and co-plotting Frederick’s murder with her. From our serial killer’s point of view, David is not designed to be a witness. Like Annabelle, David is intended to be another victim in the house on haunted hill. And, again, like Annabelle, that is exactly what David becomes.
When looking at House on Haunted Hill as a horror flick about a serial killer, and not as a ghost story, much of the film’s direction, specifically it’s blocking and use of lighting, supports why this film has become a horror classic.
First, it is clear this film had a minimal budget, but money cannot buy vision or creativity, and so great films can be made on small budget just as easily as awful films waste large funds. House on Haunted Hill is supposed to take place inside a haunted mansion, which the audience sees in exterior shots during the opening and periodically throughout the movie. Yet, the interior shots do not reinforce the size of the house; in fact, there are only about three or four rooms, a hallway, and a staircase featured in the film.
This may sound like a negative critique of the film’s setting, but it is not. Because the film only creates a few rooms within the doomed mansion, the movie gives off a claustrophobic, trapped feeling, supporting Frederick’s catch that all his party guests must remain locked inside the house for the entire night. The props, like the bars on the windows and the and driveway’s wrought iron gates, which close behind the guests as they arrive, also add to this feeling of entrapment, as though this house is a prison and the residents cannot escape until they are freed. Taking that further, there are several moments when Castle casts shadows of the window’s bars on walls in the rooms. This use of lighting emphasizes the prison feeling, creating even more bars and more traps, through illusion, than actually exist.
Had the filmmaker created too many rooms, or large rooms, the feeling might be that the characters always have somewhere to run or to hide; however, with minimal space there is nowhere to run or hide. Moreover, had the lighting design not emphasized the setting’s feeling of entrapment, the film may have not been able to deliver the same anxiety-ridden, frightening mood, which is necessary in successfully pulling off this narrative. As soon as the audience realizes this haunted house is not actually haunted, but, instead, a mousetrap for a serial killer, it becomes truly frightening that all these guests are locked into a rather cramped space with no way to get out.
When read on this slant, House on Haunted Hill is “The Most Dangerous Game” set in a haunted house, and where the brilliant, mastermind serial killer preys on wives, not hunters. Except, in House on Haunted Hill the most terrifying part is that the serial killer gets away with it all. Certainly makes one think, if his most recent wife and her lover with devoured in an underground pool of acid, how must Frederick’s other wives have died? And, who’s next?