As I discussed in last year's post on William Castle's The Tingler, I'm a fan of the gimmicks used by filmmakers in the 1950s to enhance the horror movie experience. And for every successful technique like 3-D (which may be the only successful one, come to think of it), there were many failures.
Which brings us to tonight's film, Terror in the Haunted House, aka My World Dies Screaming from 1958 (Both titles, by the way, are fundamentally inaccurate. First, the house in the film is not haunted; second, nobody's world dies--despite an enormous amount of screaming.). Terror in the Haunted House was filmed with a technique called "Psycho-Rama," which used "subliminal communication" to heighten the horror. Basically, as a supposedly scary scene was approaching, an image of a devil, a skull, a snake, or some bug-eyed guy would quickly flash on the screen. Sometimes, words would appear, like "Scream Bloody Murder" and "Get Ready to Scream."
The subliminals are, in fact, ludicrous, but they are also, unfortunately, the only reason to watch this otherwise terrible movie. They do have an interesting effect, though: much like an over-the-top score, the subliminals create a sense of anticipation. After all, the film tells us when the female lead is going to start screaming moments before she does.
In the film, Shiela (Cathy O'Donnell) is seeing a psychiatrist in Switzerland to help her with some traumatic dreams she is having. These dreams involve a house owned by a family named "Tierney." Shiela tries to walk up to the attic of the house, but something stops her before she gets to the stairs, and she starts to scream. The psychiatrist then spews some bullshit about the subconscious and repressed memories that he must have read in Psychoanalysis for Dummies.
Shiela is also newlywed to Philip (Gerald Mohr--perhaps best known to comics fans as the voice of Mr. Fantastic in the late 60s Fantastic Four cartoon), a suave, older man who wears a suit and tie for even the most casual occasion and who also constantly swaggers, Dino-style. Philip takes Shiela back to the States for their honeymoon, and he just happens to bring her to a house in Florida that is exactly like the one in her dream.
From here on, things become both predictable and frustrating. We know that Philip's choice of honeymoon location is no accident, but instead of telling Shiela straight up what he's trying to do, he lies, sneaks around, and sabotages the car in order to trap them at the house. All this only serves the purpose of setting up Philip as the obvious red herring. Shiela, also, should be able to figure out Philip's obvious plan, but instead she just swoons around her bedroom and occasionally screams.
Shiela soon learns from Jonah, the caretaker of the house (John Qualen), that the Tierney family was known as "The Mad Tierneys," because the grandfather of the family killed his two grandsons so as not to pass on the hereditary taint of madness to future generations. However, the grandfather failed to kill a third grandson, who turns out to be Philip, and who may or may not have inherited the family's particular strain of madness. In fact, Philip and Shiela were actually childhood sweethearts, though Shiela has no memory of this, and the rest of the film just gets more and more ridiculous. The climax of the film even requires about 10 minutes of exposition to explain what happened, and even then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Psycho-Rama was later used in the film A Date with Death (1959), which also starred Gerald Mohr (and shared the same writer and director). By 1961, however, the US government made subliminal advertising illegal, and Psycho-Rama became a casualty as well, which is for the better.
DWRAYGER DUNGEON has some information about the movie's soundtrack, along with some cool stills from the movie that show off some of the subliminal images.
The film is available on Hulu, and I've embedded the entire thing below. If you want to see how Psycho-Rama works, you can just check out the first five minutes or so to get a sense of what the subliminals are like throughout the movie. Otherwise, the film is only 76 minutes long, and it's worth checking out for fans of bad movies.