Sunday, January 20, 2008

B-Movie Catechist's Monthly Film Club: House on Haunted Hill

Oh, so it is just Old Man Smithers in a ghost costume.

House on Haunted Hill, directed by William Castle. Screenplay by Robb White. Starring Vincent Price, Carolyn Craig, and Richard Long. William Castle Productions, 1958. Not Rated.

Read other reviews here.

Watch it on Google Video.

This homework is overdue. Apologies to all concerned. What if I claim my dragon ate it?

It really is long as you don't think too hard. This month, the B-Movie Catechist has let the Film Club off easy with a low-budget classic starring Vincent Price as the possibly psychopathic millionaire Frederick Loren, who offers to give ten thousand dollars to five strangers--if they can survive a night in the House on Haunted Hill.

The characters are familiar and underdeveloped but comfortable B-movie types. Vincent Price is cold and sinister as Loren, yet he humanizes the role with numerous shows of emotion. His mutually nasty dialogue with his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) nicely sets up the mood for the film and makes a fine example of tight scripting. Other characters include an alcoholic (Elisha Cook) convinced everyone will die at the hands of the house's ghosts, a gambling newspaper columnist (Julia Mitchum), and the obligatory attractive young woman (Carolyn Craig) and hunky young man (Richard Long). Rather than doing the obvious, sensible thing and sitting together in the living room, drinking and telling ghost stories, these various characters wander the house alone with loaded firearms and get themselves in trouble either through ineptitude or their own twisted, conniving plots, which backfire.

The movie makes a number of forgivable mistakes. Central to the film is an elaborate attempt to commit a "perfect murder," but this murderous scheme has so many holes in it, it would be remarkable if it did work. Additionally, the movie sets up certain things but doesn't follow through: for example, a character is "marked" for death by the ghosts early in the film, but this never amounts to anything. Furthermore, the film's ending is hokey in the extreme and entirely unbelievable, yet emotionally powerful nonetheless.

The movie's greatest sin, and the focus of this discussion, is a conceit of poorly written horror, one I've encountered numerous times: inexplicable events occur, yet at the end of the story, we are expected to believe that it was all just a trick and that the ghosts were fake, even though they could levitate, travel through locked doors, and make objects move on their own. Several inexplicable events occur in House on Haunted Hill, but we get only a weak naturalistic explanation at the movie's conclusion.

A good example of this sort of thing is Under the Ocean to the South Pole, Book 2 of the acclaimed Great Marvel series, a set of adventure books for boys considered classics and collectibles. In this novel, the indistinguishable Caucasian heroes Mark and Jack decide to travel to the south pole in a submarine with their Kindly Old Professor. During the course of the journey, Our Heroes encounter a ghost haunting the submarine. The ghost, we are told, is transparent and headless, but at the end of the novel, we learn the ghost was really just one of the crew members sleep-walking in his nightshirt. How many people do you know who sleep-walk transparent and headless?

Now, I grant that it's possible to do a lot of sneaky things with smoke and mirrors. Heck, David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear while simultaneously making himself appear charismatic and sexy. That's no mean feat. And let's not forget that freaky Bermuda Triangle special of his, which still gives me nightmares. But he's a special case; most people are not David Copperfield and can't pull of the things he pulls off. The brainless connivers in House on Haunted Hill certainly couldn't.

Like House on Haunted Hill, the world is full of strange happenings. Some of them certainly deserve naturalistic explanations: the last "true" ghost story I heard, for example, clearly involved a clanky furnace rather than a restless spirit. Other events are more difficult to explain: the 1995 phenomenon of Hindu statues drinking milk, for example, at first appears miraculous. This particular event has produced a small cottage industry of atheist debunking, and I admit that, though I was previously inclined to a supernatural explanation, the naturalistic ones make more sense the more I read about them.

Catholics are used to stories of miracles and visions and similar supernatural events. Some of these are folklore, some are medical phenomena with no known explanation, some are witnessed miracles, some are visions, and some are all in people's heads. The Church examines many claims of miracles and visions; when unable to determine they are hoaxes or doctrinally objectionable, she labels them "worthy of belief," which means the faithful can take them or leave them, but are not obligated to believe in them.

St. Louis de Montfort, in his The Secret of the Rosary, a collection of stories about the rosary, recommends that Christians approach pious legends with belief unless there's a good reason to do otherwise. Admittedly, my first approach to such stories is usually skepticism, especially when a tale is presented without names or dates. In the case of St. Louis de Montfort's book, I sometimes find the stories doctrinally questionable as well: in one of them, a bad king is allowed into Heaven because of his habit of wearing a rosary on his belt. To my mind, this should have won him the added charge of hypocrisy rather than a full pardon. Catholics should understand that medals, rosaries, and other sacramentals are useless unless the faithful strive to live up to what those trinkets represent: I have a Brown Scapular, a St. Benedict's Crucifix, a Miraculous Medal, and a blessed rosary on my person as I write this, but I understand these are worthless if I do not live the Gospel.

Similar thinking can be applied to those miracles and private revelations the Church considers worthy of belief. They are helpful to the faithful unless they become a hindrance or an obsession, at which point they can be safely discarded or minimized. I have at home a booklet (I'm not at home, so cannot make a proper citation) by a woman who claims to have had a private revelation from Jesus and the Virgin Mary while attending Mass. The content is essentially a commentary on the Mass describing the liturgy's supernatural benefits and inviting prayers and full participation from the faithful. Though I of course have no way of verifying the genuineness of the revelation, it is in tune with Catholic teaching, and I find it useful, so I give to it the form of natural (as opposed to supernatural), human faith appropriate for such things.

In addition to revelations with useful insights or inspiring messages, there are miracles which defy naturalistic explanation, including some Eucharistic and medical miracles. These too, unless satisfactorily debunked, deserve belief and can be helpful to the faithful. In many cases, miracle is a better explanation than Old Man Smithers in a ghost costume.

As an added note, sf writer John C. Wright, who converted to Christianity after a series of visions, once commented that his experiences are no help in times of doubt. It strikes me as likely that private revelations are ultimately of more use to the people who don't receive them than the people who do.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for House on Haunted Hill:

Myth Level: Medium-Low (just, you know, not really)

Quality: Medium (some uneven scripting but a lot of fun)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (little objectionable; some revenge depicted positively, depending on how you want to look at it)
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