Image Credits: Allied Artists

House on Haunted Hill: Horror as a Strange Party

By ​Natasha Oladokun - Oct. 31, 2016, 8:00 AM

Horror movies are my film equivalent of candy corn: I indulge every so often, but loathe myself the entire time. I say this not to dismiss the merit of the genre, but to emphasize how fraught the exchange is—modern horror films ask more of me than I am psychologically willing to part with in any given two-hour time frame. This is probably why I stick to black-and-white classics: I get to satisfy my inexplicable and persisting interest in Old Hollywood, while scrutinizing the wardrobe, makeup, and visual effects of the day—all the while enjoying the trappings and tropes of a “scary” story without actually having to frighten myself. I’m a pretty tough person, generally speaking. But I’m also African. We don’t play around with all of that demon/spirits /blood-and-guts business. Nope. I’m out.

Which is partly why House on Haunted Hill is such an odd glitch in my “favorite old movies” list. It’s “Horror Movie Lite” by today’s standards, no doubt—but that’s where its appeal lies, at least for this viewer. Not to be confused with its 1999 remake (which I have not seen), the 1959 original is indeed a cinematic classic—campy, melodramatic, hilarious, and actually pretty disturbing if you think about it hard enough.

A whodunit-meets-ghost story, House on Haunted Hill features Vincent Price in his prime, mustachioed and practically dripping with gloomy, amped-up sophistication throughout. He plays a bored and jilted millionaire in need of amusement, who invites five strangers to his mansion for a “party,” promising them $10,000 each if they can survive one night there. Of course, all manner of spooky shenanigans follow in the ensuing seventy-five minutes, as the murder mystery unravels and the house itself becomes the least of anyone’s worries.

It’s unfair, I know, to laugh at the visual effects throughout the movie as hard as I do. After all, it was 1959, and folks worked with what they had at the time. But I find something deeply enjoyable in watching the spectacle now, with the eyes of someone whose earliest technological memories only go as far back as VHS tapes. It’s not nostalgia or purely wry amusement, really, so much as a sensation of finding the film simultaneously comedic and creepy, for all the faux-sophistication of my 2016 eye. The moments of suspense, punctuated by the film’s glimmers of self-awareness, only work to strengthen the punch in those instances of unintentional humor.

Strangely enough, House on Haunted Hill has become one of my go-to’s as far as selecting movies (classic or otherwise) that unfailingly bring me enjoyment. It’s a strange comfort, knowing that the visceral stakes will be low, and that there’ll be something new about the film that I hadn’t noticed before—something that will undoubtedly send me into a fit of prolonged giggling. Not the adrenaline rush of witnessing something truly startling, but an equally gratifying release nonetheless. In a way, it is its own weird little party—one Vincent himself would approve of, I’d like to think.

Natasha Oladokun is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her poetry and essays most often explore faith, doubt, the divine, and learning to know God through language and creative expression. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, where she learned that genres are only sort of a real thing. Follow her on Twitter at @NatashaOladokun.