It Came from Rifftrax: ‘House on Haunted Hill’

Life’s been busy lately, but I wanted to make sure we got this one up for Halloween (more or less: it’s late, but under the wire). In another live show (I really like grabbing these when I can; you get shorts, ad-libbing among the riffers, and the added energy of the crowd), Mike, Kevin, and Bill tackle one of the most ‘Halloween’ films ever made: William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring the unique Vincent Price.

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“I think everyone wonders what he’d do if he saw a ghost.”

Before that, we get not one, but two Halloween-style shorts, both of which are absolutely brilliant. First is Magical Disappearing Money (“The story of the trillion-dollar stimulus package!”), in which a witch uses her dark magic to show people at the grocery store how they can save a small amount of money by putting in some extra work and severely lowering their standards (e.g. she recommends condensed milk as an alternative to regular milk: “Not just for war time conditions anymore!”). She also doesn’t consider ideas such as “part of the price is for the saved effort” or “if you want pudding for a school lunch, it’s probably not practical to just make your own pudding from scratch.” Of course, the real fun comes from the witch’s bizarre, ditzy behavior along with her dubious recommendations. The Riffers delight in interpreting her as a demonic harbinger of evil, sending milkmen to hell and swiping the souls of the innocent (Kevin’s skit of being trapped in the milk fridge was particularly great).

-“Hm, ‘Beard Completer.’ Worth a shot…”
-“Satan’s oats only cost you your soul!”
-“Meanwhile, Fred the cat makes his escape.” “I can has freedom?”
-“You know, she’s pretty pathetic, but not nearly as creepy as the witch who lives in the adult video store.”
-“You know, drainage runoff is cheaper than everything here. Where do you draw the line, you harpy?!”

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“Join me in the abyss of savings!”

Next up is Paper and I, which features a living paper bag instructing young Willy about the paper industry, in the process turning him into a dead-eyed fanatic who thinks only of paper, and eventually they combine their dark powers to remove all paper from the world to teach people not to take it for granted. I am not really exaggerating at all. Then it ends with Willy euthanizing the bag. Again, that happens. The information is kind of interesting, but the whole thing is so nuts that it gets lost amid the insanity (Watch out for the kid who randomly decides to imitate a chimpanzee in the background of one scene. Again, not kidding: that happens).

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“You’ll never be rid of me, Willy!”

This is possibly one of the funniest shorts they ever did, for the combination of the utterly insane storyline, the paper bag’s hilarious, nasally voice, and the fact that they barely have to exaggerate the content at all to turn an educational short for kids into the tale of a boy’s descent into madness (also watch for the bit where the Nashville audience cheers the information that the South provides most of the nation’s paper).

-“Now I will show you your sins, Willy!”
-“Why didn’t we just say ‘plastic’ at the grocery store? Now our boy’s a lunatic!”
-“Here I am, Willy!” “I’m just serving some gruel to the other captured children.”
-“We’ll grow and grow! Stronger and stronger.” “And then we will march on Saruman!”
-“Oh, no; someone invented the internet!”
-“We’ll blot out the Moon, Willy! We’re gods!

Both these shorts are so strange that they barely need any riffing to make them funny, but the jokes just push them from ‘funny’ to ‘painfully hilarious’ territory. Not to mention the unintentionally dark content set a perfect tone for Halloween.”

Which brings us to the main feature. Vincent Price plays an ultra-rich man who, together with his wife, hosts a party in a giant house on ‘haunted hill’ (actually a Frank Lloyd Wright house), in which the five guests will each earn ten-thousand dollars if they spend the whole night in the house. The party, as it turns out, seems to be primarily a pretext for a murder, though who will be trying to kill whom remains to be seen.

The film is a pure delight, from the lushly gothic cinematography and set design to the deliciously arch dialogue between Price and Carol Ohmart, who plays his equally devilish wife (she claims he murdered his three previous wives, he claims she’s tried to poison him. The audience has no trouble believing both).

Price’s trademark hamminess is, of course, the chief asset of the film. The man was simply a joy to watch whatever he did, and when he did horror he was truly one-of-a-kind; equal parts ghoulish and elegant. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where he shakes up a champagne bottle and aims it at his wife’s head like a rifle before commenting on what a good headline it would make. That’s the Price character: the kind of man who will cheerfully poison you with a fine old wine and then discourse on the vintage while he watches you die.

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“Arsenic on the rocks.”

(Needless to say, he was also a master actor whenever he ended up in a ‘straight’ role: he just enjoyed the horror persona he developed too much to stray far from it most of the time).

The film also includes prolific character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (best known as Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon and nicknamed “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”) as the fidgety owner of the house, who fills in the history of the ghosts while chewing any scenery left by Price and his wife. The rest of the characters are pretty standard: the innocent young heroine, the stalwart and rather dense young hero, the skeptical doctor, and so on.

The scares are completely over-the-top and contrived as all get-out, though sometimes rather effective for all of that, especially a very well-executed jump scare. Said scare then gets a ‘natural’ explanation that raises far, far more questions than it answers. As a matter of fact, revelations at the end raises the question of just how much we saw was supposed to be supernatural and how much an elaborate hoax, though quite frankly given the things we saw, the supernatural explanation would have been much more credible.

The movie could be described as a “Weird Tales” cover brought to life, or a young boy’s idea of a haunted house made into a film. It’s cartoony, but for that very reason is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and is spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The riffing, like with Jack the Giant Killer, only adds to the fun, and it’s clear that both the riffers and the audience are enjoying the film immensely even as they roast it. Vincent Price in particular gets a full cheer when he first shows up. Many jokes also revolve around how ridiculously sexy Carol Ohmart was (“Is your face on yet?” “Her face but not her shirt!”). One particularly amusing joke deals with Vincent Price actually using the line “It’s close to midnight,” which the riffers imagine him turning into the opening of ‘Thriller’ before thinking, “I should tell that to that young…” An early gag involves drunk Frank Lloyd Wright. Later they get the entire theater chanting for heads (“Aw, it’s just frilly underwear!” “Boo!”).

-“Doctor Trent…” “May I call you ‘Council of’?”
-“Have you ever tried to get rid of four tons of acid in your basement? You know how expensive that is?”
-“$10,000…” “Invest that in Edsel, I think we’ll be set.”
-“You know how blind people’s senses sharpen to compensate for lack of sight? She grew wheels.” “Blind people are cool!”
-“Fear makes people do amazing things.” “Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel due to crippling fear of spiders.”
-“He tried to kill me!” “Did it work?”
-“You all right? You look like you just saw a talking paper bag.”
-*thunder* “Damn neighbor must be counting things again…”
-“And if you run into some meddling kids and a dog that ‘kind of’ talks, shoot to kill!
-“In the meantime I’ll be emptying the cash from my mattress and fleeing to Mexico if you need me. Not an admission of guilt!”

During the actual live performance itself, there’s some fun to be had with the trio dressing up (Kevin with a gorgon wig, prompting questions about the other end of the snakes, Bill as a ‘sexy kitten’, etc.). Not to mention many MST3k-themed costumes in the crowd.

They’re also joined for the second short, and a brief sketch during the film, by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who I personally didn’t find all that funny, except when he’s threatening to replace Kevin during the film, though your mileage may vary.

In any case, this is a great show from Rifftrax, and perfect viewing for Halloween.

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“Damn it, Bones, leave her alone!”

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