Watch and wonder as a not-so-young couple travels backwards in time to visit two very different house hauntings. During our travels we will dig up our beat poetry and rockabilly sensibilities, and hang out with the hot rod gang whose new hangout may include ghostly hanger-on’s. Then follow along, if you dare, as we agree to stay the night in the haunted-est of haunted houses alongside a group of desperate, delusional, and possibly dangerous “party-goers” looking to take home ten grand, that is, if they live long enough. Did I mention that Vincent Price is included in this double-feature? Always a reason to show up, if you ask me. So sit back, if you dare, park your car (or your backside), pop some popcorn, or pour an extra strong cup of coffee, and enjoy our visit to some 1959 horror delights.
Our films for this week are The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, directed by William J. Hole, Jr. and written by Lou Rusoff (Charles’ choice), and The House on Haunted Hill (Laura’s choice), directed by William Castle, written by Robb White, and starring Vincent Price.
The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959)
Scene from The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (no trailer available)
A follow-up to the 1958 film, Hot Rod Gang, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow has been said to be the forerunner to the “beach party” movies, most likely due in part to the writer (Lou Rusoff) wrote 1963’s Beach Party.
The movie follows a group of drag-racing fanatics, members of “The Zeniths”, a Los Angeles drag race club, who move into an old deserted mansion to use as their club’s headquarters, if they can rid said house of ghosts, ghouls and any other tricksters of the supernatural. The club’s grand opening is a Halloween masked ball, and all invitees are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite monster. The festivities turn sideways when it is suspected that there is a real monster among them, stealing all the dances with all the drag race girls.
In January of 1960, this film was widely shown in drive-in theaters on a double bill with The Diary of a High School Bride.
The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow has the makings of a great film, cars, ghosts, smart ass birds, cool old lady, a mystery to rival any classic Scooby Doo episode and a surprise ending to make M. Night Shama-llama-ding-dong cringe. Best of all, there were no big name stars to distract from the story.
The second scene of this film almost reads like an article of Car and Driver magazine with a five-minute diatribe on how to modify a hot-rod. It felt as if it was only included to inform that someone knew “something about cars” when they wrote this script.
We are introduced to a reporter, who after only a thirty minutes, or so, interview with a bunch of teenage dragsters, feels moved to help. These kids claim to not have enough money to pay for their club house, yet they seem to do nothing but sink money into their individual and uniquely elaborate hot rods.
Days later from viewing this film, I am still haunted by the country meets rock-and-roll catchy tune, Geronimo, even though it came from one of the worst lip-synched movie bands in existence.
Take a listen:
Geronimo :: The Renegades
In this film we meet a trio of girls of whom the “hottest” is the one who is given the least amount of story and screen time. The only thing we learn about her is that she likes to date short nerds.
For an hour and five minute film about racing, the movie certainly felt longer. The first half of the film was actually well scripted and drew you in. Pay close attention to the “slumber party” scene and what can be construed as the world’s first music video, with the song Charge syncs up to one of the worst TV stations in town.. Unfortunately, by the second act you lost all understanding of where this story was going, other than an opportunity to re-use the costume from an earlier that year horror feature, The Hideous Sun Demon.
3 B rating (1 point given for Boobs, Beasts and Blood): 2 B’s for – 1 for beasts (or at least masked teens pretending to be), 1 for lots of boobs, no blood in this one, unless you count motor oil. Her Take:
There are many things I enjoyed about this film, though I must say that most of them happened in the first half. Let’s start there though, shall we?
We begin the film bearing witness to a female racing rivalry, in which we meet our movie heroine, Lois. Lois is a daredevil, though a helmeted one, who leads the on-street drag race onto one of the top five cinematically recognizable Los Angeles landmarks, the LA River basin. This has been the site of many dramatic face-offs and rival races, and is quite the backdrop the continued race. Lois pulls a few choice moves as soon as the “boys in blue” make an siren-sound appearance, leaving her “nemesis” in the wake, crashed into the side of the river basin.
Cut-scene and now we meet the Zeniths, a gang of drag strip racers with hearts of gold, or at least a social conscience. The gang is led by Stan, the man with the morals, who not only tries to keep his gang from rule breaking antics like racing on city streets and playing “chicken”, but also ends what could be a hot-and-heavy make-out session with his girlfriend because, as he tells her emphatically, “I have to get home, tomorrow’s Labor Day” (Seriously, Labor Day? What hot-blooded teenage boy skips getting to second base because the following day is Labor Day?). Oh, did I mention that our moral leader’s girlfriend is rebel with a drag car Lois?
You are right to expect some tension between the two, especially when Lois is reported on in the local paper, questioned by the police, and confronted by the rival gang who most likely don’t care that its Labor Day tomorrow for leaving their best girl crashed in the basin with the police.
Lois is chastised not only by boyfriend Stan, but also by her parents who are quite tired of Lois’ hobby. That said, Dad is none too thrilled with her kissing in the car antics with Stan either (someone must have not told him that tomorrow is Labor Day, else he would have known that said kissing would be over quickly). When Lois’ parents see the newspaper report of the not-so-fatal crash in the basin, the result of two female race rivals, Lois is grounded and only saved by a visit from the notorious Anastasia Abernathy (great illiterative name), millionaire and eccentric with the best pet bird ever, who is a client of Lois’ Dad.
Anastasia is by far my favorite character. She reminds me of some warped melding of the witch from The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. She comes to town with her insult and innuendo wielding bird and the pair of them not only save the club-less Zeniths, but they steal every, single scene they are in. Anastasia gifts the Zeniths her notoriously haunted house on Dragstrip Hollow, once owned by her late Uncle John, on one condition, that the racy teens scare out the ghosts and ghouls. Some other highlights of the film, for me, is the music sequences. Albeit the bad lip-syncing, you cannot resist the early rockabilly/surf punk sounds of the gun-toting Geronimo. The band, and the local chef, are all armed and ready to shoot whenever the song’s repeated chorus kicks in.
Have a listen:
Short clip of Geronimo
The other “drag” girls, sans Lois, have a girl group trio, in which they perform “My Guy“, an ode to all the boys they’ve dated and how “this one” is the the best of the bunch. Warning: the song will haunt you for days and days, and a few more after.
My Guy :: Linda Leigh and the Treasure Troves
The movie loses steam for me as the gang moves into Dragstrip Hollow. The only saving grace is the big unmasking reveal which is hard not to see as a precursor to the Scooby Doo gangs end of each episode big bad unmasking reveal. The big bad is flawed and felt thrown together, and the end was a let down, though the final shot made it all almost worth it (see below):
Her Rating: Out of 5 stars: The first half is a 3, but the second half plummets for me enough to take away one of those stars, though I have to throw half back in for the music – its hard not to dig the music (badly lip-synched, or not), for an overall rating of 2 1/2 stars.
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
It was directed by William Castle, written by Robb White and stars Vincent Price as eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren. He and his fourth wife, Annabelle, have invited five people to the alleged haunted house he has rented for a “haunted house” party. Whoever stays in the house for one night will earn $10,000 each. As the night progresses, all the guests are trapped inside the house with ghosts, murderers, and other terrors. The movie’s soundtrack was done by Richard Kayne, Richard Loring and Von Dexter.
Exterior shots of the house were filmed at the historic Ennis House in Los Feliz, California. The house itself, has seen its share of cinematic roles through the years. It has been featured in other films, such as Blade Runner. The Day of the Locust and Rush Hour, on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twin Peaks, and even parodied on an episode of the television series South Park.
The film is best known for a famous promotional gimmick used in the film’s original theatrical release called “Emergo“: William Castle placed an elaborate pulley system in some theaters showing the film which allowed a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience at the appropriate time
His take: House on Haunted Hill is a drive-in film classic. It features William Castle, king of the schlock, Vincent Price, king of the drive-in film, and Elisha Cook Jr., king of the short stature actors. It also showcases one of the greatest houses to live in, in Los Angeles, that even comes with its own acid pit in the basement!
The film is the quintessential standard that most haunted house films are based on. It manages to maintain a spooky atmosphere, although it does serve up a bad message to women’s liberation – as the one girl they work towards driving crazy to kill Vincent Price’s Frederick Loren is portrayed as the weakest character ever, constantly screaming for “Lance“, making me wonder if she was calling for the character in Lost in Space, or that she desperately needed a boil lanced.
His Rating: 3 B rating (1 point given for Boobs, Beasts and Blood): 2 B’s for – 1 for blood, 1 for beasts, 0 for boobs.
The film starts out with a scream, well, many a scream, that echoes across a black screen of nothing. What a way to startle and shake you into attention. I try to imagine what that would have felt like, sitting in a darkened theater, the screen going just as dark, and then a blood-curdling scream. Hair standing on end of pin-prickled skin while all eyes open wide would be my guess at an audience reaction.
The scream is accompanied by the ghoulish groans that reminds me of a “Sounds of the Haunted House” record I had as a child. I used to love to play it on Halloween, even though it frightened me to listen.
From the dark canvas we are greeted by Elisha Cook Jr’s Watson Pritchard, who sets the scene by informing us that this is the most haunted house in the world, it is then that the image of the famous Ennis house, Frank Lloyd Wright grand, glowing and gratuitously foreboding, comes into view. Then comes in the disembodied head of Vincent Price.
Let me start out by saying that Vincent Price has been one of my favorites ever since I was a little girl. My Mother introduced me to the wonders of late night black and white horror movies that aired on one of the local television affiliates, and it was the ones starring Vincent Price that I always loved the most. How can you resist that certain debonair style, that at the time I correlated with my favorite non-horror black and white leading man, Cary Grant? And that voice, a mixture of devious and delightful, there was no way not to be drawn in. That said, it is hard not to be immediately entranced when his is the first face you see.
From the start of this film the fourth wall is broken, and we are given an invitation to join in this haunted party. An interesting and effective way to bring in the audience close, and holding the attention that the initial screams brought. It is this fourth wall break, at the start and end of the film, that harken The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, my personal favorite attraction since childhood. I have to wonder if the inspiration for the ride was this film.
The Haunted Mansion, at Disneyland
The other thing to note at the start of this movie, is the repeated phrase “she’s so amusing” said in such dead pan (pun intended) by our nefarious host about his wife that you cannot help but feel unsettled, and quite certain that this is no ordinary marriage. And, this is his fourth, the other three alluded to as mysteriously missing, or dead. No ordinary marriage is quite the understatement, as we are quick to learn, especially as it is revealed during one of their barbed bantered conversations that Mrs. Loren, Annabelle, has tried to poison Frederick before. Could there be more to this plotted party night than we are made to believe? This set of dialogue speaks volumes to the state of Mr. and Mrs. Loren (courtesy of IMDB):
Frederick Loren: Do you remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?
Annabelle Loren: [laughs] Something you ate, the doctor said.
Frederick Loren: Yes, arsenic on the rocks… [grabs Annabelle]
Frederick Loren: Annabelle, you’d do it again if you thought you’d get away with it, wouldn’t you?
We are introduced to each invitee whilst they make their way up the hill to the “House“, being driven in their own hearse. Later, they are each gifted tiny coffins which hold individual weapons. All of the trappings of death appearing for each guest, setting up the feeling that they may not make it to see the morning. But, $10,000 dollars is the dangling carrot, and the attendees to this soiree all have need, above and beyond greed, to collect their winnings.
Beyond the haunted house theme, this spending the night in horror for money is another theme that has made its way through countless movies, books and anthology television series. It is a great technique, though, as it is one of those questions that any audience can ask themselves, what would you do for money? Would you spend the night in a haunted house?
Sound effects, music and lighting are key in this movie, setting the scares in place and keeping the tone in check. Even when we see the strings and the proverbial “man behind the curtain” the sound and setting still keeps us slightly unhinged. The writing and delivery of dialogue, especially by Vincent Price (Frederick Loren), Carol Ohmart (Annabelle Loren) and Elisha Cook, Jr. (Watson Pritchard), are outstanding, and make this an unforgettable haunted house tale.
Though, in the end, it is more thriller than typical horror film, it still packs a punch in scares and startling moments, and sets up an expectation of what a well-done haunted house flick should be filled with: well-executed shadows and light, unique and curious characters, and things that go bump in the night that make you jump in the night – and, of course, a splendidly scary soundtrack.
Intro Theme from House on Haunted Hill
Her Rating: Out of 5 stars: a star each for the sounds, the setting (that house!), the snappy, and at times barbed, dialogue, and of course, a star for the fabulous Vincent Price, for an overall rating of 4 stars.