House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-10-14 11:59

Directed by: William Malone
Written by: Dick Beebe
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Jeffrey Combs, Chris Kataan, and Ali Larter

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“Sure is a funky old house, ain't it?”

The decade I once called "the great depression of the horror genre" had gems but they were few and far between. They came sporadically, but most were confined to the years 1995 and 1999. At that time, you could still count the amount of horror remakes on one hand. A year prior to 1999 had seen the release of Gus Van Sant's experiment-gone-wrong remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho. With this colossal box-office failure still fresh in audiences' minds, a small production company called Dark Castle Entertainment took it upon themselves to try something different with the remake game. Instead of remaking a true classic of the horror genre, Dark Castle would instead remake a film that audiences could understand a need for a remake of. A film with better ideas than it had execution. So, what better place to start than the films of schlock-meistro, William Castle? The company's first Castle remake was one of the director's most famous films, House on Haunted Hill. Would it transcend the remake sub-genre, or would it just be the same old junk in a shiny new package?

Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) lives a posh life of fun and excitement. His amusement park attractions go to extreme lengths to entertain. For instance, a rollercoaster of his design features trick tracks that snap in two and heal themselves, and a train full of dummy passengers. So it is no surprise that when he throws a party, he wants it to be a real scream. For his wife's birthday, the he rents out an old abandoned sanitarium with a notorious past. Taking a list of her friends...or are they his friends...he invites them to spend the night in the rumored-to-be-haunted house. The winner...or shall I say, survivor...of the night will receive one million dollars in cash at daybreak. However, staying alive in the house on Haunted Hill is not as easy as it sounds, as the unresting spirits of a batch of evil doctors, nurses, and the patients they wrongfully tortured and murdered are still very much a part of the house, and just as the film's tagline says... evil loves to party!

This is not a great film by any means, but it sure is an entertaining one. Maybe I just had extremely low expectations going in, but I really enjoyed this movie. It's 150% better than the William Castle remake that would follow, Thirteen Ghosts. Released the fall after both The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes had wowed horror audiences, House on Haunted Hill had an uphill battle in the ghost/haunting department. Audiences had already seen two really good ghost movies earlier in the summer, so how would this film set itself apart? By being purely and simply fun, that's how. It's not a film that I would dig out if I were wanting to impress someone with a strong, scary movie. Instead, I think this film would play best in an atmosphere fitting the plot...a party. If there is one thing the film is never, that is dull. The script is equally as full of eye-rolling groaner moments as it is clever quips and set-ups. The ending, in particular was probably my least favorite part of the film, but not bad enough to ruin the whole movie for me. I can't really go into what disappointed me with the ending without spoiling it, but I'll just say it was a bit contrived and kind of an "easy out" for the filmmakers. I think a much more gutsy and darker ending could've made for a much more satisfying conclusion. The film follows the original plot fairly close at times, even including the "party favors" of loaded pistols being given to the guests. It strays quite a bit at other times, but like I said, the original wasn't exactly a classic film by any means and could've been improved upon. One difference is that the "house" in this film is an abandoned, decrepit hospital that leers on the hillside like a giant tombstone and not really an actual mansion or house. Therefore, it's less of a haunted house movie and more of a haunted hospital one. This is fine with me, because as is proven also in Halloween II, hospitals can be quite creepy, especially at night. Add the fact that there are not just ghosts, but crazy ghosts, and I think the set-up is pretty solid for a horror film.

The cast is really one of the key selling points with the movie. Well, I guess I should say, the female cast is the key selling point. Not only do you have former Bond girl Famke Janssen, but you also have Ali Larter (the whipped cream bikini girl of Varsity Blues) and Bridgette Wilson ("soooooo hot, want to touch the heiney!") None of whom, are naked, of course, although there is a tiny bit of nudity elsewhere in the film. Taye Diggs just really doesn't interest me at all and his performance here is just as bland as any of his others. Same with Peter Gallagher. How does this guy keep getting work? He's just so dull in everything. Chris Kattan is much better in the film than I thought he would be. His voice and demeanor always got on my nerves on Saturday Night Live, but here, he's fairly restrained and tries his best to play it straight and not all screamy and zany. Though the temptation to be extremely campy and over-the-top was likely high for the comedic actor in a project such as this, I was quite impressed that he gave such a decent, serious performance as Watson Pritchett (the only character name to be used in both the original film and the remake). The two stars of the film, however, are Geoffrey Rush and in what is essentially just a really cool but key cameo, Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator). Rush says he tried to emulate flamboyant film director John Waters with his character, but he also does a pretty good stand in for Vincent Price. You can tell he's having a blast with the role, and for an Oscar nominated actor to willingly be this enthusiastic about a horror film speaks a lot about his personality. He's definitely cool in my book. I particularly enjoyed any of the scenes where he and Famke Janssen zing each other with mean-spirited quips. These were a highlight of the original Vincent Price film and are equally entertaining here. Combs has virtually no lines, and is only shown in fuzzy quickly edited clips in flashbacks and on security camera screens, but his Dr. Vannacutt character gives off a menacing enough vibe to make the haunted atmosphere of the film palpable. Yeah, the film's not really scary, but from Combs' performance, the creepy set-design, and the horrifically violent things that the spirits in the hospital do to the people inside, the film does manage to set up a pretty good "I'd really hate to be stuck in that place overnight" atmosphere.

The film was directed by William Malone. Not exactly a superstar of the genre, he has maintained steady work in the genre before and even after the release of the film. He was the one responsible for the little-seen 80s alien monster movies Scared to Death and Creature. He also directed a handful of episodes of Freddy's Nightmares for syndication. His work post-House on Haunted Hill has been relegated to only Fear Dot Com and an episode of the disappointing Showtime series, Masters of Horror. He's not the most masterful of horror directors, but House on Haunted Hill does show that he is a competent talent behind the lens. Though, one has to question his editing ability and decision-making, however. One of the deleted scenes on the DVD of the film features a very tense and effective zombie attack in the basement of the hospital. By all means, this sequence should have been kept in the final film. The zombies looked cool, and it was actually probably the only scene in the whole movie where there was any sort of genuine white-knuckle tension. Perhaps Warner Bros. wanted the scene cut for time or maybe Malone didn't feel that zombies fit in a haunted house movie. Either way, the scene works and should've stayed. If nothing else, Malone knows how to deliver a movie that features the kind of stuff that horror fans want and expect and knows how to craft a film that isn't afraid to keep its tongue in its cheek.

Coming out of a period where horror films were pretty dry in the blood department, the film has a good helping of violent, gore-soaked moments. One of my favorites came right up front with a flashback to the original tragedy at the hospital. One of the disturbed patients takes a handful of freshly sharpened pencils and stabs one of the orderlies through the neck. The FX are made all the more impressive by the fact that they were created by none other than KNB EFX. A review of the film would be completely remiss if I avoided discussion of composer Don Davis' work on the film. I really have no idea why he isn't getting more horror film work these days. His scores for this film and Valentine are two of the absolute best horror film scores of the last decade. Not only is the opening titles piece for this film memorable, but the rest of the score makes appropriately effective use of strings and piano (two key ingredients for any good horror score, if you ask me). The film's score is available on CD and I highly suggest any fan of horror movie music to track it down. Sadly, his score for Valentine has strangely never been released on CD. Oh, and remember the first time you heard Marylin Manson's cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and thought that it would be perfect if used in a horror film? Well, the filmmakers of this movie must have thought that too, because one sequence is set to it... and just as we all had suspected, it does work to the film's advantage.

The DVD of House on Haunted Hill features a few interesting special features. An audio commentary with director William Mallone is included. Mallone gives a good deal of information about the making of the film. Not a bad commentary, in all. Also included are a few behind the scenes documentaries. Lastly, we have deleted scenes, which are mainly worthwhile due to the aforementioned deleted zombie sequence. Such a shame that this scene was cut. The quality of the audio and video transfers of the film are superb, as expected for a modern film. I used to feel guilty when defending this movie against its detractors, but I believe with almost ten years since its release now, most people have come to realize that it's really not half bad and by far the most entertaining project that Dark Castle has been associated with. Thirteen Ghosts and Ghost Ship are good for one spectacularly over the top death scene each, but very little else. House on Haunted Hill is a most entertaining piece of horror cinema. It succeeds in being a remake that doesn't tarnish the original (as the original wasn't all that fantastic to begin with) and it doesn't make you want to burn down a movie studio for greenlighting remakes. It reminds us that certain films can use a remake if done correctly. It doesn't aim to delve into our deepest fears or cause us lasting paranoia. Instead, its vibe is that of a really good funhouse. With some clever gore make-up, a hot cast of leading ladies, a chilling location and backstory, and an atmosphere of fun horror shocks, who wouldn't enjoy this movie? Buy it!

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