I regret missing this one in theatres back in 99. It took me until video release and a friend recommendation to get a shot at it. Now to be clear I was working roughly from 4pm to 2am at that time and we watched movie after work. The lights were completely off, leaving us with the TV as our only source of illumination. I have come to find atmosphere truly does help with how one thinks of a movie. So I admit going in my memories are fonder due to that atmosphere. Had I watched it at noon on a Sunday with lovely blue skies (*shudders*)? Less likely to care or be impressed.
Does it work?
Well, let’s talk story. It’s classic haunted house meets slaughterhouse. The actual story credit here goes to Robb White, who passed away 9 years before the film, a frequent collaborator of William Castle. Castle, like Hammer, was a master of low budget horror in the 50’s and 60’s creating films we now revere as classics such as 13 Ghosts and the original House on Haunted Hill. This is important because this is the first film from Dark Castle productions, named in honor of William. The movie was given the screenplay treatment for the millennium by Dick Beebe. Beebe would later write Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and little else. Without comparing it to the original work I think the writer did a good job of setting up a good story, interesting characters, and good dialogue.
The director William Malone, another who sadly did not give us more, did a really good job with the atmosphere, blocking, and direction of the actors. The house is supposed to be a living, breathing entity here and they are 100% successful in that. There are some very intelligent design choices in how and where they put the camera, lighting, and music. Under his direction and with the good script the characters avoid the stupid. They all hold, with one notable exception, skepticism for the supernatural like normal people. They react to the situation as normal people; you know…poorly.
Cast wise the film is fairly incredible for its time. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) delivers his best possible Vincent Price impression. While Rush doesn’t try to emulate the great horror icon, he does attempt the style; even his character is named Price. There’s also Famke Janssen (X-Men), Taye Diggs (Rent), Chris Kattan (SNL), Ali Larter (Heroes, Resident Evil 3 & 4), and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras (Mortal Kombat). The Re-animator himself, Jeffrey Combs, makes a small cameo appearance as well. So the cast is small and packed with some rather decent actors. That explains why they can rely on quiet moments when they do and why there feels like the right levels of chemistry and performance from them as the movie progresses. Rush of course dominates any scene he is in and is a fantastic enough actor to pull back when he needs to let the others have a moment. Kattan is actually funny in the right ways. Diggs and Larter are beautiful together. Explains why I like them so much in any other project, they just have something.
From an FX perspective the movie has two sides. Like Phantoms yesterday when they go practical every single beat works. KNB once again gives us the blood, gore, and prosthetics. It’s when they go digital that the movie doesn’t work as well. Even a few of the CG enhanced practical effects tend to be pretty weak. A few of the jump scares come across as ridiculous when the music doesn’t sync right and is just a hair too loud. Though when it goes practical it works so beautifully well. There’s um one glaring intensively massive effects flaw with the film in the final beat as the sun rises over the Pacific….
Just let that sink in.
The movie works. It’s just smart enough and holds up relatively well fifteen years later. I like its atmosphere. I like it’s overall logic. The acting. The script. The house. The Marilyn Manson cover of Sweet Dreams.
Really, I have to recommend this for any horror fans as a standalone film. Do not try to compare to the original (I am likely to do that this month). Judging on it’s own merits it is a rather good horror film. Hell I can chase my best friend out of the house by putting it on.
Funky ol movie, ain’t it?
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I love, love, love the original House on Haunted Hill. My mom showed me that one when I was probably 10? I recall making my hubby and his roommate (early 90s) watch it. I was so sure it would terrify. Hmmm. There was a lot of laughing as I recall.
I haven’t seen this updated version, but based on casting and your fabulous review… seems I need to. Granted, I’m not a huge fan of horror and yet, I do value some of these movies. I’ll have to think about that.
Great reviews, keep them coming! 🙂