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After the successful release of Macabre, Allied Artists wanted director William Castle to work his magic again.
“House on Haunted Hill was just an old-fashioned, good haunted house story,” Castle said. “I was inspired to do it by my childhood remembrances of telling ghost stories in front of the fire.”
Despite knowing the hook, he didn’t know who the lead would be. That is, until he got coffee one rainy day.
As it turned out, Vincent Price was getting coffee too. The actor's mood matched the weather since he had just been turned down for a part in a Western. Little did he know that opportunity was about to come knocking.
Castle and Price had met before, but the actor didn’t remember. It didn’t matter though because the director wasted no time in pitching House on Haunted Hill. After hearing the tale with murder, acid, and a frightening skeleton, Price responded, "How charming."
And just like that, they agreed to collaborate over a slice of pie.
Price said, “William Castle was a good director. He knew how to put this kind of film together.”
But it wasn’t just enough to have a spooky film. There needed to be a gimmick, just as Macabre had with its "Fright Insurance."
The production company pitched ideas such as ghoulish sounds in the lobby or ushers dressed as ghosts, but Castle thought up something better.
Knowing that the scariest moment of the film was when the skeleton rises from the acid, he decided that he wanted a skeleton to pop out at the audience. The gimmick would work by having the film’s projectionist hit a button which would release a skeleton hiding in a black box next to the screen. The skeleton would then fly out into the audience via a wire and give everyone a good scare. He called it “Emergo!”
While the idea was great, the execution didn’t always work. There were times when the skeleton was late coming out or only went half-way. Sometimes audience members would throw things at it or even attempt to take it down.
But once the problems were ironed out, the gimmick worked and helped drive ticket sales. After all, everyone was talking about the trick.
Vincent Price remembers a time when the skeleton even scared people out of their seats.
He said, “When the film opened in at a theater in San Francisco and the skeleton appeared, the audience knocked out the first eight rows of seats.”
Castle said, “We’ve had great success with the audiences. They’ve screamed, they’ve yelled, and they’ve enjoyed it.”
House on Haunted Hill cost approximately $150 thousand and grossed more than $4 million. The film proved Castle could make a lot with a little and established his relationship with Price – a relationship which would extend to their next picture together, The Tingler.
“Vincent Price is a very good friend of mine,” Castle said. “I couldn’t afford his salary, which is quite heavy. I offered him a percentage as a partner, and he accepted. He’s a wonderful man to work with.”
According to screenwriter Robb White, Price got quite the pay day from that deal too. White said, “I went to a party at [Price’s] house after the movie was out, and he just bought another painting for about $200,000. I told him, ‘I’m glad we could afford it.'"