A DVD REVIEW: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1958, Alpha Video) [Archive] - Audio & Video Forums


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08-14-2005, 11:16 PM

Remade in 1999 by William Malone via Warner Brothers' "Dark Castle" production team, William Castle's original House on Haunted Hill, once watching it multiple times at its brisk 75 minute running time, seems more hype than chilling ghost story --- although the typical haunting performance by veteran Vincent Price makes it enjoyable for multiple viewings, indeed.

The two versions of this tale --- Malone's 1999 remake and this 1958 original --- make for very interesting comparisons because they follow the same basic premise yet at the same time, of course, due to technological advancements in cinema, ups the special effects and sheer shock value in the remake, making Castle's version seem absolutely laughable in comparison with skeletons flying around on strings, corpse-like zombies sliding past horrified female witnesses and horrendously fake-looking severed shrunken heads sitting in boxes. As most film buffs are aware of, during the theatrical release of Castle's House on Haunted Hill, the director actually authorized hanging skeletons on wire and floating them across the audience in the actual theaters during certain moments of the film to literally scare the female members of the audience to the brink of madness. It is a technique discussed in length on Warner Brothers' DVD version of the 1999 remake, which I will review probably by tomorrow as I watch it for comparison purposes (I own both this original version and the remake).

While leaving massive question marks over your head at the end wondering what just transpired --- whether this was a film about a husband and wives' conspiracy to off each other and blame members of a group who have gathered at an old house for a "party" or an actual haunted house tale --- William Castle's 1958 creepfest has Vincent Price in the lead here as eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (his name is changed in the remake, but the characters' name in the 1999 version pays homage to Price) who invites five seemingly random strangers to a macabre party in a legendary haunted mansion hosted by his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart); in the remake, the setting is changed a bit, as the "haunted mansion" becomes a "haunted insane asylum." At any rate, the guests are told they will each receive $10,000 if they agree to spend a night in the house - and survive (in the remake, the money has been raised into the millions for the offer of spending the night in this haunted insane asylum). The partygoers, armed with handguns that are presented by Price as "party favors" (imitated in the remake), are forced to deal with decapitated heads in suitcases, a vat of sulfuric acid in the basement and the discovery of Annabelle hanging from the rafters with a noose around her neck. The night is filled with terror, shocks and unexpected twists --- but in the end leaves us really with nothing.

It is often said that William Castle's House on Haunted Hill is a highly inventive and unnerving horror cult classic that combines Vincent Price's menacingly suave persona with the renowned flamboyance of producer/director Castle --- although I enjoyed the remake just as much, if not more, and it was definitely better than Jan De Bont's remake of The Haunting which was battling for ticket sales in and around William Malone's 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill was floating about theaters. Price does deliver one of his most sinister performances here, though, a tour de force of tongue-in-cheek evil. The comparison between the fashion in which he speaks to his wife and she to him is duplicated almost perfectly in the remake, giving the audience, right off the bat, the indication that these two simply want each other out of the way and it's left up to us, as the audience, to figure out if these "guests" invited to this "party" (one of which seems to be "in" on a plot to murder Price's wife as her behind-his-back lover --- explored in the remake as well) are in real danger of someone human in this group....or a haunting presence which occupies this mansion (or the asylum, as depicted in the remake). The building structures are quite different in both films as well, with the "mansion" in this 1958 version looking very different from the closed-down insane asylum "tower" building used in the remake.

As I detailed in an earlier section of the review, during its initial release, Castle, possessing a remarkable knack for gimmicks, rigged the theaters with a skeleton that flew out from the screen and over audiences' heads. Von Dexter's eerie score creates a nervous tension broken by sudden bloodcurdling screams. There are multiple releases of this title (this 1958 version, that is) on DVD from many home video studios; I happened to pick this version up, released by bootleg studio Alpha Video, along with my ex who was interested in watching it after enjoying the remake and buying it on DVD. There are some film afficionados who will argue, via enthusiast sites, that this Alpha version is far from the definitive transfer in terms of quality of House on Haunted Hill, and while I did not have another studio's version to compare it to, notably a Warner Brothers authorized release of the title, they are probably correct in that assessment.

For a low-rent "studio" such as Alpha Video, the packaging omissions regarding the audio and video specifications for this release were not surprising. Nowhere on the box does it mention aspect ratio or audio track selections, yet neither were difficult to guess at or even confirm (in the case of the audio, at least); the image filled my 55" screen in all its black and white "glory" with no letterboxing, and my guess is that this was a full frame release from Alpha and there is in fact a widescreen transfer of this title available from a more....how shall we say it...reliable source? Let me explain a bit more about the aforementioned "glory" part of this black and white image. While stable most of the time, this is not the cleanest black and white print you'll see on DVD. Pops, crackles, dirt and other distractions rear their ugly heads at different moments throughout the transfer. The first thing that came to mind, for me, was how different this print looks than the cleaner black and white transfer on MGM's Raging Bull two disc remaster that recently came out; all in all, this is a transfer that delivers for the year it was released, and is probably the best it is going to hold up on DVD --- but I can't help but wonder if the other multiple studios which released this title had a better handle on the video delivery because it does look dirty and somewhat "jittery" in places.

The audio surprised me. Again, labeled nowhere on the box, my DVD player indicated this was a 2.0 mono mix, which was dumped completely into my center channel via Pro Logic II processing. Believe it or not, this mono track --- for a film from 1958 --- actually packs quite a punch, which required me to literally lower the volume level a few times during the presentation due to the request of the other member viewing this with me in the home theater (something I NEVER usually do when watching mono-encoded DVDs; usually, they're never NEAR loud ENOUGH).....here, screams, shrieks and "stinger" effects are rendered very loudly through the center channel and sure, while dialogue is on the lower side, it didn't really distract from the overall presentation --- as a matter of fact, Warner's release of the 1999 remake had much bigger problems in the dialogue area (which I'll cover when I do the review for that). Most notable was whenever a female actress onscreen is screaming her lungs out (which happens quite often in this picture whenever one of them is exposed to a flying skeleton or head in a box), which is rendered on this mono mix in a shockingly loud, vile fashion that can actually fill a listening room even though no other speakers are being used but the center. The creepy score seemed to be buried a bit behind the shrieks and screams, but the overall delivery of this mono track impressed me......and friends.....that's not easy to do when it comes to audio, believe me. The mix, though, does exhibit that typical "old" somewhat "clouded" characteristic of films from this era, which is unavoidable --- but once the female characters begin screaming, hang on --- the treble levels on this mix can get downright ear shattering if your master volume is up high enough, believe that or not.

For a bootleg release, this feature came stripped of any extras, save for a useless "gallery" of other titles available from this "Alpha Video"; the Warner Brothers release of the 1999 remake version from William Malone more than makes up for this, as there are multiple comparison extras on that disc between the two films, which I will detail in an upcoming review.