Filmed in Psychorama, by actual psychos
The first thing Terror in the Haunted House tells us is the special process used in the making of the film: Psychorama. We can only be grateful Hollywood held off as long as they did to release a film made with this “mind-altering, fourth dimension” process. Filmmakers were doubtless waiting for the right time and right film to come along, all the time worried this revolutionary process was too dangerous, too subversive, for audiences to bear. 1958, the height of Eisenhower and sturdy conformity, was the first American epoch deemed sufficiently firm of mind to handle the terrifying properties of Psychorama. This is marginally more believable than the sub-Alfred Hitchcock Presents tale soon to unfold.
During moments of high drama in Terror in the Haunted House, you notice flickering faces (a rat, a skull, a boggle-eyed mad professor) or messages (‘SCREAM BLOODY MURDER!’) appear on-screen, just long enough to notice. The intention of these images is to induce terror upon the 'frights' the film already offers, whereas the effect is more like someone waving a piece of paper in your face with the word ‘BOO!’ written on it every few minutes. Rhino Videos, on releasing the film on VHS, even added a ‘subliminal’ message of its own, prompting viewers to use its services every day. Really though, a horror film using visual cue-cards to scare is like adding a straw to a cocktail; an unwelcome addition that will become an annoyance, jabbing you in the eye.
Gimmicks aside, this is a film wanting us to mistake it for Rebecca (1940), with its opening narration of a woman telling us how she dreams of a certain house most nights, a house with a tormented and bloody past. We approach the house, note the letterbox marked ‘The Tierneys’ (you'll need a scorecard to keep pace with names in this film), then make our way through the door and upstairs towards the attic, where certain death awaits and our voice-over awakes screaming. The narration is Sheila Justin, formerly Sheila Wayne (Kathy O’Donnell), explaining her recurring nightmare to her psychiatrist (Barry Bernard) who is a real psychiatrist, with a clipped beard and one of those swirly things they once used to place people under hypnosis. We are in Switzerland, where Sheila has lived since contracting TB in America as a child, necessitating a long stay in a sanatorium.
Our Swiss miss is soon to leave the mountains for America however, with Philip, her husband of six weeks. The recurring nightmares of the house also began six weeks ago; coincidence, agrees our psychiatrist, who believes Sheila will leave her bad dreams behind in the Alps, suggesting the doctor’s brain is as full of holes as the local cheese.
After much lengthy discussions of how much the newlyweds love each other, as if they’d known each other all their lives (subliminal plot point there) Sheila and Philip (Gerald Mohr) fly to America and drive to their new home in the Florida Everglades. And knock me down with a ‘gator, it’s the home Sheila sees in her dreams each night. Philip persuades, then hassles and finally demands Sheila enters the house, despite her obvious fear, and soon Sheila is screaming at every sound and sight, more often than not while in her nightdress.
We soon meet Jonah (John Qualen), a janitor straight out of the Scooby-Doo book of creepy caretakers, and Mark Snell (Bill Ching), the owner of the property. Philip takes a dislike to Mark, and the pair seem acquainted with each other; both know more than are letting on, although Mark does call Sheila ‘Mrs Tierney’ in an oh-what-a-giveaway moment. Jonah meanwhile relates the terrible story behind the house; the 'curse' of the Tierney family caused grandfather Tierney to lose his mind. Sensing two of his sons carried the curse, he lured them into the attic and killed them with an axe, then dropped dead himself.
A grandson, away at college, escaped the bloodbath, but never returned home. Dear old grandpa also had a headstrong daughter, Lydia, who died giving birth to Mark Snell, the result of a roll in the hay with one of the stable boys. All this sounds familiar to Sheila, who remarks the tales sound as if they’d happened to her, a long time ago (another subliminal plot point). Another curse afflicts the Tierney home, inconsistent day-to-night filming, unless running out of a studio house at night into a broad daylight exterior shot is part of Sheila’s madness.
As Chekov once put it, if you introduce a gun in the first act, you had better use it by the fifth, and after confronting Philip with her suspicions and concluding she loves him too much to go against him, Philip hauls his wife up to the attic, amidst a flurry of Psychorama freaky faces. What will we find there? The janitor’s spook-projecting machine? Bela Lugosi’s eyes? A giant Scottish frog?
Spoilers! There’s nothing in the attic. Not that the budget is so small that an empty space is Sheila’s nemesis (Hollywood’s shallowness is of an unselfconscious sort and so never embraced existentialism), but this is where the murders took place, twenty years ago. One of the dead was Philip’s father; Philip Justin is in truth, the last of the Tierneys and the little boy Sheila remembers as her loving friend. Sheila Wayne/Justin/Tierney witnessed the killings and whisked away to Switzerland soon after, for nothing is better for acute childhood trauma than transplantation to a foreign country with a different language and legions of cuckoo clocks. After college, Philip vowed to track down his childhood sweetheart and changed his name to cover his tracks. And now Sheila recalls something else – the killer wasn’t old man Tierney, it was Jonah! (In short, everything you knew was wrong).
Sadly, Jonah died after taking an assisted plunge down the stairs earlier on. Mark Snell, now revealed as Jonah’s son (Lydia’s dalliance was with Jonah, which says a lot for how much she hated her own father), is on hand to fight Philip, who lost out on the Tierney inheritance, thanks to Jonah’s axe-wielding intervention. Mark dies, oh the irony, falling on an axe, and we have our happy ending, and without a Psychorama smiley face to make us even happier.
As is often the case, the story behind the film is as interesting as the one presented to the audience. Kathy O’Donnell, born as Ann Steely (what is it with these names?), won a contract with MGM and made her debut in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). O’Donnell followed this success with the acclaimed noir They Live by Night (1948). That same year however, O’Donnell married the older brother of MGM director William Wyler, who had fallen out with studio chief Samuel Goldwyn. The mogul reacted to the marriage by cancelling O’Donnell’s contract.
The marriage lasted, but O’Donnell’s career did not, drifting through the 1950s from one mediocre film or forgotten TV episode to the next. O’Donnell’s preceding film to Terror in the Haunted House was the infamous debacle The Story of Mankind (1957), home to every piece of miscasting known to Hollywood, but O’Donnell’s film career did at least end with one of the biggest films of the decade, Ben-Hur (1959). An astute viewer can detect in O’Donnell’s performance traces of an actor who knew she deserved a better vehicle for her talent, and someone who rather wished it was still the 1940s.
Playing Philip Tierney with hard-bitten ease is Gerald Mohr, a man born of Austrian parents bemused no doubt to find their genes collaborating to produce a Humphrey Bogart clone. This
Bill Ching, who plays Mark with a kind of literate oafishness, shared billing with the real Bogart in 1950’s In a Lonely Place and starred in the respected DOA in the same year. Ching also made three appearances in the TV anthology Science Fiction Theater before his career fizzled out not long after Terror in the Haunted House.
By contrast, John Qualen (janitor Jonah) enjoyed a long career stretching from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, taking in roles in classics such as Casablanca (1942), The Searchers (1956), Grapes of Wrath (1940), I the Jury (1953) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Chances are if you saw a film of that era featuring an eccentric character of Scandinavian stock, you saw John Qualen. Quite what Qualen thought of Terror in the Haunted House, with its dime store Halloween tricks, and on-the-fly character motivation, went unrecorded, unless he told people using subliminal messages.