This past weekend, I partook in a time-honored tradition: a road trip to New Orleans. The trip was ostensibly taken to “watch the Gators play LSU,” but we all knew two things: A) That wasn’t going to go very well and B) We were going to New Orleans for New Orleans. No other reason necessary.
Now, as I learned at a young age from books and the direct-to-video movie “Scooby Doo on Zombie Island,” New Orleans is the most haunted, scariest place in America. (Though according to Scooby Doo, all the ghosts in the Crescent City are just mean people in masks except for the evil cat people on this one island that I didn’t visit, so I was safe!) The idea briefly entered my mind that, since I was on a mission to discover fear this month, I should take advantage of some of the spooky delights New Orleans has to offer, hunt out some above-ground graveyards or haunted mansions.
This would have been a great plan if my only companion on my road trip had been my unflagging courage… but, of course, since I arrived with other people, and since these people were all my age, and all had no interest in “discovering fear” as it were, this was a plan that was going nowhere fast. On my night in New Orleans, I saw nothing eerier than some really seedy strip joints.
What did I do instead? What else? I became a zombie. Or at least I felt like one.
On my night in New Orleans, I was caught in a horrible, ghost-like limbo — a purgatory which captures all 22 year olds in New Orleans at about midnight and simply will not let go of them! (Until about 6 in the morning. Then they have to clean the streets, and the 22 year olds are all passed out anyway.) No one can escape it. No club or bar can shelter you from it for long. I know this purgatory now like the back of my hand. For hours, with little hope of escape, I walked back and forth among the college-aged zombies on Bourbon Street, which, I can now attest, is in fact the scariest place in America – far scarier than anything John Carpenter or Wes Craven could ever imagine.
Ending up on Bourbon Street was inevitable of course. “A few hours on Bourbon Street,” you ask, “well, what’s so odd about that?” Nothing. “What road trip to New Orleans doesn’t involve Bourbon Street?”
But I know something now. I hate Bourbon Street. I hate it a lot. I love New Orleans – I love its buildings and its food and its attitude – but after multiple slogs down Bourbon Street, I can officially say that I have no further need in my life for hand grenades or dirty souvenir stores or falling beads or the quest for the mythical public restroom. I have Tropical Isle signs etched into the back of my eyelids. I see them when I fall asleep and they frighten me. I want them gone…
So I visited New Orleans, our most haunted city, and I left without so much as a nod toward my mission. No voodoo curse, no vampire bite, not even a residual haunting. The scariest thing I saw all weekend was a hoard of drunken frat kids on a balcony drinking from a 20-foot long straw which they would insert into girls’ hand grenades and fish bowls. (How is that physically possible? isn’t that unsanitary?!? Don’t they have a better use of their time?!?) I let myself down.
As penance, I felt I had an obligation to watch a creepy haunted house movie – I had to make it up to the Crescent City – and so, on the long ride home I fought spotty Internet coverage and queued up the venerable horror classic “The House on Haunted Hill.”
Vincent Price – Mister Horror
“The House on Haunted Hill” is one of many (many, many, many!) movies to star Vincent Price in the type of role that made him an icon: the charming but unsettling alpha male who has become slightly unhinged in the midst of some fantastical goings-on.
His affinity for making camp look dignified made him the horror genre’s handsome, human face. It made his name synonymous with the escapist fantasy that made up horror films during the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Vincent Price didn’t reside in a spooky haunted house. He was a spooky haunted house. He was a mad scientist’s experiment gone horribly wrong. He was the normal man beset with impossible nightmares, and he was that nightmare. His voice was the “Good Evening…” which welcomed you to your own Technicolor nightmares. To Americans of a certain age, he was horror.
In some films, Price – who you know even if you do not know him from his classic horror films: he played the old scientist in “Edward Scissorhands” just before his death and, in his most lasting legacy, he lent his distinctive voice to the Michael Jackson megahit “Thriller” – played the hapless victim, a vehicle for oncoming psychosis brought about by forces beyond his control. Other times, he played the almighty machinist behind the scenes – he was the person with the most control, creating the supernatural chaos that others would have to deal with on their own terms. Either way, the result was often the same – Price, both reigning it in and letting it all out, could play a deliriously refined, deliciously unhinged aristocrat-cum-madman like no other.
In “The House on Haunted Hill,” Price plays both put-upon victim and the genius behind the curtain. Most of the fun in the film comes from the fact that, from scene to scene, you’re never quite sure whether Price’s character is the hero or villain of this gothic tale – Price plays it both ways depending on who he is interacting with. In the end, he gets to have it both ways – Price’s character leaves the picture as both the sympathetic victim who very narrowly escaped a fate most horrible and the evil mastermind who had it all figured out from the beginning and concocted a diabolical plan to serve his own means. It’s a difficult dance, and the suspense it generates kept me interested even when the film was dragged down by some of its more conventional screaming at ghosts that aren’t there moments.
The last few lines of the film suggest there is greater, supernatural force at work in the haunted house waiting to get you, but this is only skirting the obvious – as in this film as a whole, the greatest force at work in that house is the cult of personality which surrounds the inimitable Vincent Price.
Are there ghosts? Hell if I know…
The basic conceit of “The House on Haunted Hill” is this: a millionaire playboy (Price) and his wife are renting out a house which has a reputation for being a hotbed for murders and hauntings. This is appropriate since both husband and wife seem to have plans on murdering their significant other in gruesome ways.
Both lovers, as a way of teasing one another I can only presume, play some part in the creation of a a haunted house party: five seemingly random people are invited to partake in the festivities, locked in for one night in their haunted manor. If the participants stay the whole night and they stay alive, then they each get $100,000. Once locked in, there’s no way out other then the route offered by the loaded pistol each guest is offered. The pistols, of course, come in neat little coffin-shaped boxes. Aww!
Here is essentially how things proceed from there, told through what I believe is supposed to be the interior monologue running through our head as each new twist happens.
- “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Obviously. Pshhh…”
- “There are ghosts! The guy who sounds insane said so!”
- “There are no ghosts. He’s just a drunk. Ha!”
- “There are ghosts. I just saw one!”
- “That was just the maid. I mean she’s like 200 years old, and blind, and she appears to float when she walks, but… she’s a nice lady.”
- “There might almost certainly be ghosts.”
- “Yeah there are ghosts. The wife is dead. Ghosts.”
- “Wow, okay… No ghosts. The wife is alive. She faked her own death as well as all the spooky things in the house so that she could scare one of the guests so much that they would shoot her husband. And it works! Okay, there are probably easier ways to go about doing this… but this means no ghosts.”
- “Floating skeleton! Floating freaking skeleton!Explain that one nay-sayers. Definitely ghosts.”
- “Vincent Price just walked out from behind a box and he is holding the wires that control the skeleton. So he always knew his wife was going to try to have him killed, therefore he alsofaked his own death. He filled the gun that shot him with blanks. Then when his wife came down to make sure he was dead, he sicked a floating skeleton on her and scared her into a vat of acid. So… no ghosts? What’s going on?”
- “The crazy guy with the googly eyes, still convinced there are ghosts in the house, turns to the camera and shouts, ‘They’re coming for me now… And then they’ll come for you.’ So are there ghosts?!?
- “Yeah, I’m going to bed…”
Enough stalling. Scared, wimp?
This film is schizophrenic. It’s not sure what it wants you to think is scarier: the idea that human beings with souls could be behind all this dirty dealing, or the idea that a ghost could be lurking around any corner. So it tries to play both sides of the fence.
Oftentimes it succeeds. You’ll never get me to say that this film is equal to a masterpiece of paranoia like “The Thing,” but there is a suspicious quality to every character that keeps you on your toes. Some revelations about the nature of some of these characters – and the depths of their evil – legitimately surprise. The film also benefits from keeping the idea of the ghosts being behind it all in play. Some of the film’s supernatural moments got a pretty big jump out of me.
At the same time, this film suffers a bit for being too much Scooby-Doo and not enough Buffy. That this film goes to such great lengths to shoehorn everything into a “bad man in a mask” dénouement without ever showing us a real ghost or monster seems to work to the film’s detriment. It asks us one to many times to believe that the answer is supernatural, all the time undermining this assertion by leaving everything to the agency of either plotting husband or plotting wife. This ultimately only serves to neuter the house and put all the power in Vincent Price’s hands. This film wants us to believe, from its first line, that the ghosts are restless and that this house is evil, but it gives all the power to Price, and when he leaves the screen, the plea in the film’s last line to believe that the house is the true villain seems more pathetic than prophetic.
After my trip to New Orleans, a trip that teased me with the notion of haunted houses but couldn’t deliver, I wanted to see a haunted house movie; when Price walked off the screen and passed power back to the house, it became clear that I had missed the mark somewhat. Vincent Price wants his guests, and the audience, to believe that this really is a haunted house, but what it really is, it becomes clear, is a Vincent Price house. It’s his to scare in forevermore.
- Scariest Scene: Not even any competition. While this scare would later be neutered by the revelation that this old lady was never a ghost at all, its power in the moment can not be argued. Our heroine turns to find this standing over her shoulder:
She is profoundly displeased by this revelation. I pretty much jumped through the roof of the car onto I-10 at this juncture, so I can’t blame her.
- Best Scene: Any scene with Vincent Price in it. His job is basically to deliver a whole lot of exposition. Which is okay. Vincent Price makes exposition sound like the gospel.
- No black guys in “The House on Haunted Hill.” The remake had Taye Diggs in it, and he did not die first, so I could count that but… no one counts the remake. So pretend I never said that.