For me, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill is the masterpiece of William Castle/Vincent Price collaborations. So before revisiting this 1999 remake twenty years later, I was assuming I was unfairly hard on it the first time around. I was…until the very moment when I was brutally honest back then, just as I’m going to be this time.
No stranger to horror, director William Malone has a career that goes as far back as Scared to Death and Creature from the 80s, and includes episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror, plus more recent films like Feardotcom and Parasomnia.
This remake features a stellar cast: Jeffrey Combs, Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, and Bridgette Wilson. Even James Marsters of Buffy fame and Lisa Loeb of “Stay” fame appear in a brief scene at the beginning, and Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is featured in the opener, making this movie so fricking 1999.
It’s also part of a trend of “it’s alive!” haunted house films from that era, most notably The Haunting and Thir13en Ghosts. It’s particularly similar to the latter (right down to shots of mechanisms turning in the house) because they were both produced by Dark Castle Entertainment.
Impressively, House on Haunted Hill generally follows the plot of the original with some fresh changes to make it just different enough. Wealthy Geoffrey Rush (whose character’s last name is Price—wink wink) invites a group of seemingly random people to come to the eerie house on haunted hill. The catch is they are locked in for the night, and anyone who manages to stay alive until morning gets a butt load of money. To make sure they can defend themselves (from what, they don’t know), they each receive a little coffin with a gun in it, a detail borrowed right from the original.
Also keeping in line with the original, Rush and his wife, Famke Jannsen, loathe each other. Chris Kattan plays a role similar to the nervous guy in the original who knew more about the house than everyone else, which is also almost identical to Matthew Lillard’s role in Thir13een Ghosts.
Tragic that the creepy servant couple wasn’t resurrected for the remake, but we do get more information about the house’s past. Horror icon Jeffrey Combs plays an evil doctor (in flashbacks…and ghost flashes) who experimented on patients in the house when it was a mental institution. Yes, this house is much more haunted than the original. There are some incredibly effective moments, because naturally the idiots split up! They see things that aren’t there, they see specters through a camera lens that aren’t visible with the naked eye, and there are even some nightmarish monsters not unlike something you’d encounter in the Silent Hill video game, which was released about 10 months before this film. Hmmmm…
House on Haunted Hill is one of the most well known films to feature the spasm head special effect that was all the rage at the time. I’m surprised it didn’t get exploited more, because it was damn creepy.
As the film plays out like an awesomely eerie update of the original (with one twist to the original plot that I adore), the only part I could have done without is Rush having some sort of trippy hallucination/dream sequence that serves as an excuse to introduce other ghouls.
Overall, while I like the Silent Hill type ghouls, they don’t quite make sense considering the house is supposedly haunted by ghosts.
So where does it all go wrong? The final act, when we get what my friends and I referred to as the Rorschach Test ghost back in the day. The survivors are chased by an undulating ectoplasm ghost with human faces embedded in it. You want to talk about bad CGI. This drops an otherwise chilling film into b-movie territory and sucks all the frightful fun out of it. What were they think?
The deleted scenes on the physical release of the film include one that would have made more sense than most of the retained ghouls: Ali Larter falls through a hole into an underground area of the house and is swarmed by corpses that rise from the dirt. Perfection. Not only should this scene have been included in the final cut, the remainder of the film should have followed its lead and given us more of this tangible type of horror.
RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (2007)
A sequel was released 8 years later (astonishing), with Victor Garcia (The Damned, Hellraiser: Revelations) directing. The story sucks, but this film does what it must to make it a more exciting experience than the original: a) it runs only 81 minutes long b) the ghosts absolutely mutilate people this time.
Not what I meant by “I want to get him in the sheets,” but…this will do.
Oh yes, it is a gorefest, which is the only thing that makes the weak premise excusable. Why do people go into the house this time? Ali Larter’s sister and boyfriend end up being bullied (at gunpoint) into helping find a statue worth millions that happens to be hidden in the house somewhere—because we learn crazy doctor Combs was a refined lover and collector of art. Ugh.
The bright side? Combs returns and is more of the ghostly focus this time, which is generally a more logical plot point. While Ali Larter’s “character” also returns briefly, the role has been recast. Boo.
You’ve heard this one before. The good guys and bad guys get trapped in the house and must work together to survive. What’s kind of ridiculous is that the baddies are supposed to be quite dangerous (like, they’ve killed people), yet the good guys are absurdly flippant with them.
Once again there are Silent Hill inspired monsters—including freaky nurses, not to mention a couple of lesbian babe corpses. Awesome.
And unlike the first film, even though there are deformed ghouls here, it’s made clear they are the patients from the hospital—every time one of them grabs a victim, the victim gets a mental picture of what the doctor put that patient through years before. Personally, my favorite scene involves characters falling into a body of water…in which they’re not alone. Eek! It gave me a Poltergeist pool scene flashback.
When you add the super gory kills and minus the Rorschach Test, you have what is actually a more satisfying horror experience overall and a more cohesive ghost story, despite all its sequelitis issues.