Fright night

Blue Room horror-comedy stirs up haunted memories

Tony Daum (left) as Watson Prichard and Quintin Deshler as pilot Lance Schroeder, two overnight guests in the haunted house.

Tony Daum (left) as Watson Prichard and Quintin Deshler as pilot Lance Schroeder, two overnight guests in the haunted house.

Photo by Melanie MacTavish

House on Haunted Hill, Thursday, July 23, Blue Room Theatre

The first time I heard about the 1959 film House on Haunted Hill, I was 5 years old. My older brother had come back from the theater in Three Forks, Mont., with the other ranch kids telling horrific tales of ghosts, walking skeletons and screaming people dissolved in acid. I didn’t know what to make of it, but was glad I didn’t go. At that age, the wicked witches of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz still made me bury my face behind a pillow during the “scary parts.” Nonetheless, a year later I somehow wound up with a group of kids who got dropped off at the movie theater to see Roger Vadim’s 1960 psychological vampire tale Blood and Roses, which traumatized my sensibilities so much that I didn’t watch another horror film until my late teens.

So I approached the Blue Room’s one-weekend run of House on Haunted Hill, co-directed by Samantha Deshler and Stephanie Ditty, guided only by my memories of the horrors described by other little kids, never having seen the original William Castle film starring Vincent Price. The story is almost archetypal in its simplicity of design—Frederick Loren (played originally by Price and here by Nick Anderson), a mysterious and wealthy man, and his glamorous wife, Annabelle (Stephanie Gilbert), invite five strangers to spend the night at a “party” in an allegedly haunted mansion. Guests who endure the night are each promised $10,000 for surviving from midnight till the following morning. Horror, of a very slow-paced and comically melodramatic sort, ensues.

The Blue Room show’s producer, local horror impresario and connoisseur Craig Blamer, chose his cast well, and directors Deshler and Ditty had them deliver the word-for-word dialogue with a deadpan lack of irony that heightened the script’s innate goofiness, Swiss-cheese plot and cornball “suspense”—even amid the rigors of translating a movie with multiple interior sets into a play with minimalistic props. The necessity of quickly rearranging the two tables, three chairs and a few props to represent the various rooms depicted in the film became a near slapstick element on stage, with cast and crew hustling through the rapid-fire and increasingly hilarious choreographed set changes.

It’s a credit to the ensemble cast that not one broke character in the face of this manic action between their sedately paced scenes.

This production didn’t employ any of Castle’s trademark in-the-audience special effects—such as the seat vibrators installed for showings of The Tingler (1959)—but there were well-placed thunder sounds as well as not-so-well-placed pantomimed door-knocks that were often out of sync with the prerecorded sounds.

Tony Daum, as the trepidatious and increasingly drunken Watson Pritchard, appeared to be genuinely terrified of his surroundings. Quintin Deshler as the steel-nerved test pilot Lance Schroeder embodied the handsome romantic lead. Samantha Wolf not only demonstrated a great, eardrum-piercing scream, she bears a striking physical resemblance to Carolyn Craig, who played the pretty girl of humble means Nora Manning in the original film. As newspaper writer Ruth Bridgers, Blue Room veteran Delisa Freistadt was remarkable in her characterization of the “Scotch and …” drinking journalist stereotype. The saturnine hysteria specialist Dr. David Trent is a part that could have been written with Caleb Mains in mind—his face, framed in a well-trimmed beard, convincingly conveyed the mind of the scheming psychologist.

But the gem of the production, perfectly complementary to the obsequious menace of her husband, was the character of Annabelle Loren, and Gilbert gave the role just the right balance of languorously cool gold-digger and icy-veined would-be murderess. Without delivering a complete spoiler to those who may seek out the film (it’s on YouTube), I can only say it’s a bit of a letdown when she gets hers in the end. Her triumphant husband, as portrayed by Anderson, oozed such oily-smooth venom that one almost wished he’d slipped on his own slickness and wound up in the acid bath as well.