Sheila Wayne (Cathy O’Donnell) was born in the United States but has lived in Switzerland for most of her life. She’s recently married an American man named Philip Justin (Gerald Mohr), and the two are soon returning to the United States to start their lives together.
Before she leaves Switzerland, Sheila has some personal business to attend to. She’s had recurring nightmares about a creaky old house with the name “Tierney” on the mailbox, and she’s working with a hypnotic therapist in attempt to understand her mind and rid herself of these horrible dreams.
Arriving in Florida, Sheila is excited to move into her and Philip’s new countryside home. But when they pull up to the house, she gets the shock of her life: her “happy” new home is the spooky old house from her dream!
Terror in the Haunted House, released in 1958, was originally titled My World Dies Screaming. (What a title!) The film was directed by Harold Daniels (Date with Death) and written by Robert C. Dennis (Crime Against Joe).
An opening title declares that Terror in the Haunted House is “THE FIRST PICTURE IN… PSYCHO-RAMA! THE FOURTH DIMENSION! USING SUBLIMINAL COMMUNICATION!” It’s a very William Castle-esque gimmick, which I adore.
Following the warning about the “Psycho-Rama” to come, Sheila provides some narration, describing her dream. The house, she says, is “like a moldering tombstone to a world that died.” Amazing.
So, what is “Psycho-Rama,” that little extra something meant to set this film apart from other ’50s thrillers? The answer is simple: little jump scares, essentially. Faces and other images appear for only a fraction of a second on screen, barely long enough for the brain to register them, but not so fast that they’re as “subliminal” as intended. They’re peppered throughout the film in the moments that are supposed to be the most tense. I can imagine that this would be loads of fun to watch in a dark theater!
Cathy O’Donnell, who I also greatly enjoyed in They Live By Night, gives a very effective performance. Her portrayal of Sheila’s recognition of the house upon arriving, and her fear as strange events occur, is consistently convincing. Gerald Mohr is a bit wooden as her husband, but she has no trouble carrying the film on her own.
John Qualen gives a fun supporting turn as Jonah, the odd groundskeeper of Sheila and Philip’s new home. He tells Sheila that he’s been keeping up the property so it will be ready for the “return” of the original owners. It’s not clear exactly what he means by that, but the viewer is inclined to assume that their return may be a ghostly one. Jonah is reminiscent of the gardener character Mickey in The Screaming Skull. It’s hard to tell whether he’s a creepy foe, or an unusual ally to the terrified central character.
Little spooks are thrown in here and there, with spots of very effective mood-building, but Terror in the Haunted House is (unfortunately) mostly talk. To borrow the words of a country song, this film could use “a little less talk and a lot more action.” A lot of time that could have been spent on building a greater level of suspense is instead spent explaining the plot through dialogue.
But, to the film’s credit, I wasn’t able to easily predict the exact outcome of the story, or all of the details of Sheila’s connection to the old house. Despite its preference for conversation over excitement, Terror in the Haunted House is still an enjoyable little mystery-thriller. The score: 3.5/5