Column: The Vault of Secrets: House of the Damned (1963)

By Orrin Grey

House of the Damned (1963). Directed by: Maury Dexter. Starring: Ron Foster, Merry Anders, Richard Crane.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s fright film has a synopsis that would have been right at home in a Stuart Gordon movie thirty years later, where it would have been half again as long, at least three times as eventful, and about a hundred times more lurid. I’d offer to spare you the film’s big reveal, but it’s given away to some extent in the trailer and 100% on the back cover of the DVD. So, if you’re thinking of watching House of the Damned and still want to be surprised, stop reading now. It’s a pretty harmless movie and it’s only 63 minutes long, so it won’t cost you much time.

Now, for those of you who’re staying, House of the Damned was a movie that was pretty clearly shot to take up the B slot on a double bill. It looks like an old detective TV show, though it’s shot in CinemaScope and has some pretty good black-and-white cinematography. So, it looks like a good old detective TV show. It feels a little bit like one, too, and if you’d shaved some minutes off its runtime, you’d have a perfectly serviceable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Instead, you’ve got a feature that feels bloated even at only a few minutes over an hour.

While watching the movie, I wrote alternative taglines on my notepad, including, “Never before has so much of a film’s running time been taken up with trying keys!” It seriously does feel like this was shot for TV and then padded out with fifteen minutes of key-trying sequences. Between trying keys and lengthy shots through a grating – yes, movie, we’re aware that someone or something is hiding back there – you can be sure this film was shot with only a handful of setups.

Still, it’s actually very charming, with a screenplay by Harry Spalding (who would later pen previous Vault of Secrets alum Curse of the Fly) that sets up plenty of nice Gothic mainstays, even if it never really does much to pay them off. The posters made much of the 13 keys that unlock the many doors in the castle in the California hills and the trailer (which shows just about every spooky scene in the movie) advertises its mad heiress and her secret crime. There’s a dead body in a locked room upstairs. The movie’s supposedly chilling secret is that the house is haunted – not by the “living dead,” as the tagline would lead you to believe – but by a troupe of circus performers, including a young Richard Kiel as a giant. The reveal comes in perhaps the most congenial climax in the history of horror films, which goes a long way toward pulling the teeth of the movie, but adds quite a bit to its charm.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we turn our attention to investigating a certain Xperiment.