A Pair of Vincent Prices #1: House On Haunted Hill (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Woo!  Only two label Pairs down, and I'm already breaking the rules.  What an outlaw, what a rebel!  Even other rebels can't believe how much I disregard the laws.  Alright, I'll stop.  But yeah, I thought I'd mix things up a little and do two classic Vincent Price vehicles.  And I'm starting with William Castle's most famous successful horror outing - well, unless you want to count Rosemary's Baby - The far sillier House On Haunted Hill.
Mind you, when I call this film silly, it's meant to be silly.  I'm not putting down a dead serious horror film that's failing to illicit drama or suspense.  The House On Haunted Hill is a tongue-in-cheek lark.  Vincent Price is a millionaire married to his sixth wife who seems to want him dead even more than he wants her see her that way.  Still, he's invited an eclectic mix of six strangers to a party in her honor: a party in his famously haunted mansion (a distractingly strange looking Frank Lloyd Wright creation).  Each guest will receive ten thousand dollars if they agree to stay over night... and live to collect.  Does he plan to murder one or all of them?  Is one of them there to murder him?  Are there really ghosts?  Or should everyone really be wary of the ghoulish servants who lurk the corridors?

House is awfully short for a feature, clocking it at just under 75 minutes, no doubt taking its cue from Shakespeare: "brevity is the soul of wit."  If you're worried about this being an old, boring movie, have no fear of that.  The pacing is electric, zipping from plot twist to plot twist, especially when you consider this film is packed with main characters.  When the film does briefly pause to take a breath, its only to allow Price and his wife to trade sharp barbs in delectable camp fashion or build up suspense for one of its big scare set pieces.  Not that this film's genuinely scary at all; but it knows how to capture that haunted house thrill ride spirit.  In fact, being a William Castle film; The House On Haunted Hill had a famous in-theater gimmick where a skeleton would fly over the audiences' heads during a key scene in the film.  Fortunately, this film entertains just as well when viewed at home without it.
I used to own a junky, old public domain DVD of this from Diamond.  But I've since chucked it, since I replaced it with other public domain versions, specifically in a 2005 Mill Creek 20 Movie Pack called chilling, and in the various Rifftrax editions.  Those include the original Legend Films DVD, which featured a non-Rifftrax Mike Nelson commentary, and most notably colorized the film, the official Rifftrax DVD (which does allow the option of watching the film sans riffing) and their live show DVD.  Now, House has been out on blu a few times, as parts of classic horror sets, but those early releases were just "fakes," slapping basic SD transfers onto blu-ray discs.  House made its debut in genuine HD with Scream Factory's Vincent Price Collection II, the second of three blu-ray boxed sets of Price films.  Like the other films in those collections, it's not available separately, and is almost only available in that box... Umbrella has also issued it own barebones Vincent Price blu-ray collection in Australia, which also includes this film.  Either way, you're not getting this film on blu without purchasing a slew of other VP titles, too, which is frustrating if you just happen to like this one film.  Interestingly, the most recent release is another Mill Creek DVD, this time from 2017, so we can see how far they've come, if at all.
1) 2005 Mill Creek DVD; 2) 2005 Legend DVD (B&W);
3) 2005 Legend (color) DVD; 4) 2009 Rifftrax DVD;
5) 2011 Rifftrax live DVD; 6) 2014 Scream Factory blu;
7) 2017 Mill Creek DVD.
So, I was expecting Mill Creek to either have some SD transfer closer to Scream's remaster, or maybe still the same old one from 2005.  But I was sure surprised to see them actually move backwards.  Their first DVD is still non-anamorphic, soft and interlaced, but at least it was sort of widescreen, at the unusual ratio of 1.57:1.  Their 2017 is just as interlaced, possibly even softer, now murky yellow, and now framed at 1.31:1.  Well, I'm assuming this film is meant to be matted wide... that's certainly what Scream Factory did for their HD restoration, lowering it to 1.77:1.  The fullscreen versions are all open matte, though, so they're mostly shaving off vertical information... but they do reveal something new to the sides as well.  In between the polar extremes of Mill Creek and Scream we have the Legend/ Rifftrax DVDs.  All utilize the same transfer (apart from the B&W/ colorized distinction), fullframe at 1.33:1 and happily not interlaced.  Well, except there is some jagged combing visible throughout the 2009 disc, but they don't have entirely interlaced frames.  I think they just made a mistake in the compression of the plain Rifftrax disc.  The colorization isn't too bad for what it is (i.e. revisionist and undesirable), but it at least refrains from crazy, unnatural color choices like they did with Reefer Madness.
It was perhaps a bit silly of me to include the Rifftrax Live DVD in this comparison, because unlike the other Legend/ Rifftrax discs, it doesn't offer you the option of watching the film with just the original audio.  It also, naturally, includes other segments of the live show, including two short films and occasionally pushes the picture to one side in order to show the guys performing.  It's really only watchable as an episode of Rifftrax.  But, to be clear, the other editions, including the official 2009 Rifftrax DVD, do allow you to watch the film "plain," without their interference, and so work as proper House On Haunted Hill DVDs if you so desire.  And since the 2009 one is the janky one visually, that makes the 2005 Legend DVD the preferable option.

Anyway, that Legend disc might've been one of the better ones back when all we had were mediocre DVDs of this public domain title, but the blu is playing on an entirely different level.  Questions about the AR aside (even if it should be widescreen, surely 1.77:1 is slightly off for the sake of catering to 16x9 TVs), this is the first time House really looks like film.  Grain is rich and downright vibrant in motion, the contrast is bold and pleasing, image is sharp and detail is restored.  And, of course, none of these DVDs offer anything more than the rough mono audio, but Scream has boosted it to DTS-HD and killed most of the hiss of past editions.  Foley sounds crisp and naturalistic for once.  They've also included optional English subtitles for the first time.
In terms of special features, as you can imagine, those Mill Creek collections are completely barren.  And the main extras on the Rifftrax discs are just the riff tracks themselves.  The 2005 one was made and released before Rifftrax was a thing, and is just described as a "hilarious audio commentary by Mike Nelson of TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000."  It's a bit more of Mike by himself going off the cuff, as opposed to the 2009 and 2011, which are properly written, and decidedly funnier, performances by the trio.  The 2005 DVD also has a short video of press book stills, the theatrical trailer, an insert, and an ad for their other colorized discs.  The live DVD also includes two comic Rifftrax commercials and the trivia track they would show before the show when it was broadcast in theaters.

Scream finally gives the film some real extras, though it's a little disappointing that, as a part of their Vincent Price Collection, it seems to be made from the perspective that we're all die-hard Price lovers rather than interested in the film in general.  By that I mean, we get a bunch of featurettes that really get into the weeds of Price's life and career, even delving into his private art collection and taste in wine, and none about the Castle, the film itself, or the rest of the cast and crew.  Introductory Price, Working With Vincent Price, Vincent Price: Renaissance Man...  Hey, I enjoy Price's work and am interested to learn more, but I don't need to root through his drawers, if you know what I mean.  So yeah, there's the four featurettes, the trailer, a bunch of other Price trailers, the stills gallery, and the one feature that dares to broaden the field, an audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman.  Of course he talks about Price, too, but he's the only one here to get into all the other fun stuff about this film, Castle, other cast members and of course the flying skeleton.
So yeah, even the special features suggest this disc was never intended to be released on its own, outside of the Vincent Price collection.  But that's a shame, because thanks to its pacing if nothing else, this film stands the test of time, and has a broader appeal than many of the other films in this set.  You know, I don't see anyone but Price completists beating down the door for Return Of the Fly.  But there really ought to be a stand-alone option for The House On Haunted Hill, and I mean one with the HD quality and audio commentary.  It's a great disc, and I think it's being blockaded off from some of its audience.

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