William Castle was The King of the Gimmick Films. A natural born showman, Castle got his start grinding out B pictures for companies like Columbia and Monogram. By the late 1950s, television dominated the country’s entertainment audiences, and box offices suffered. Castle made the film MACARBRE in 1958, handing out $1,000 life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London to patrons “in case they died of fright” while watching the movie. MACARBRE drew money, and for his next flick, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle had a plastic skeleton wired up to float over moviegoers heads during a crucial scene.
THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is your basic “haunted house” movie, with seven disparate characters forced to spend the night at the gloomy house. Vincent Price plays ultra-rich Frederick Loren, host of the party, who offers five strangers $10,000 dollars to stay at the supposed “murder house”. His wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart at her bitchy best) is at odds with Loren, refusing to divorce him. The house is owned by Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered here, and who claims seven ghosts of murder victims walk the halls. The rest of the guests are pilot Lance (Richard Long), secretary Nora (Carolyn Craig), Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal), and columnist Ruth (June Bridges).
Strange things begin happening, as Lance is knocked out in a secret room, and Nora shrieks after seeing a hideous old hag (more on her later!) The house is locked tight at precisely midnight. When Annabelle is found hanging from the ceiling, everyone suspects each other of the foul deed. A storm is brewing outside the house, while inside unexplainable phenomena drive Nora to hysteria. It’s revealed to the audience Annabelle is alive, and with her lover Dr. Trent they plan to push Nora over the edge and Annabelle’s husband. But Loren’s on to their scheme, and he ends up killing Trent and driving Annabelle to her doom with the help of a mechanical skeleton (which is where Castle’s gimmick came in).
With the success of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle continued his spook shows. For THE TINGLER (also starring Price), he had theater seats rigged with electric buzzers to give the filmgoer a jolt! 13 GHOSTS offered special glasses to “see” the spooks in the film. HOMICIDAL had a “nurse” stationed at each theater for “cowards”. After leaving his gimmick days behind, Castle made some suspense films with Joan Crawford (STRIGHT-JACKET, I SAW WHAT YOU DID) and produced Roman Polanski’s 1968 hit ROSEMARY’S BABY. The talented Mr. Castle, his ballyhoo days behind him, passed away in 1977.
Now about that “old hag” who pops up in the movie…she still creeps me out!! Doing some research, I found out she was an silent film actress named Leona Anderson, sister of cowboy star Bronco Billy Anderson. Leona made a comeback of sorts in the 1950s, billing herself as “the world’s most Horrible singer”. She appeared on TV with funnyman Ernie Kovacs, and even released an album titled MUSIC TO SUFFER BY. Here’s the one and only (Thank God!) Miss Anderson warbling “Rats in My Room”: