Tuesday, January 24, 2012

DOUBLE CAPSULE REVIEW: William Castle at Retrofantasma

If there's one gap in my horror viewing, it's material that dates to the 1960's and before. So I jumped at the chance to brush up on some early stuff thanks to Retrofantasma's first show of the year: a William Castle double feature including both the classic House on Haunted Hill from 1959, and the little-known Let's Kill Uncle from the tail end of Castle's career in 1966.

Castle directed an ungodly number of films, and seems to have broken into his role as schlocky horror director toward the end of the fifties - right around the time that House on Haunted Hill debuted. I remember picking up a cheaply packaged DVD of this film for a buck at Wal-Mart ages ago. (For some reason it was packaged along with Don't Go in the Basement... possibly because they're both in the public domain?) Nothing from the film really stuck with me though, aside from a few select scenes near the end: something about a pit of acid and a remote controlled skeleton...

A loose retelling of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, House focuses on a group of individuals invited to a party in an old, reputedly haunted mansion by a reclusive millionaire (played by the always delightful Vincent Price). The catch: if they can stay in the house all night, they'll be rewarded with $10k each. It's a solid premise, especially when the house's violent history is slowly revealed and the tension between the millionaire and his estranged wife becomes murderously palpable. While the material is somewhat campy, it's not afraid to lapse into full-throttle theatrics, which gives it the feel of an old haunted house tour or dinner and murder party. There are a bunch of nice touches along the way too - "party favors" of guns contained in tiny coffins, the constant question of how real the ghosts are, and constant reversals where evil characters are revealed as good, and vice versa. There's also one scare early on that caught me completely off guard, proving that slow pans are way scarier than jump cuts. It's a quick, fun film that takes a number of enjoyable turns. If you're willing to go along with it, it's a good time.

6.5 / 10 = Worth seeing

Let's Kill Uncle is a harder film to classify. Is it a kid's film? From the outset, it seems like it. Surely nobody would cast such an irritating pair of kids front and center in a movie targeted at adults. But the premise is far too violent to go over well in a family film. When young Barnaby's parents pass away, he's sent to live with his veteran uncle on a remote island in the Pacific. Barnaby's sizable inheritance attracts the attention of his uncle, who informs him that "you're cute, but not five million dollars cute." Very true, uncle. Uncle tells Barnaby that a game has begun. The rules: uncle is going to try to kill Barnaby, but not inside the house (too messy), and not if Barnaby can kill him first. Barnaby and his annoying friend Chrissy (played Mary Badham, intent on destroying the potential child stardom she'd built up in To Kill a Mockingbird) start plotting to bump off uncle, all the while trying to keep the "game" secret from the other inattentive adults on the island. Sounds dark, right? It's really, amazingly, not. It's just way too over-the-top to ever take seriously. The weird tone is probably why this film was (and in a sense still is) forgotten. The 35mm print was pristine, and reputedly never before shown to a public audience, but it's a shame that this just isn't that remarkable of a film.

4.5 / 10 = For completists only (if you can track it down)

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