Darke Reviews | House on Haunted Hill (1999)

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?


Darke Reviews | Phantoms (1998)

Apparently this is also the month I review movies based on books by Dean Koontz. The other day with Odd Thomas, now with Phantoms. I might have to check to see how many other stories of his have made it to film and by extension to my collection. I do remember seeing this one when it came out and admit to being intrigued by it and it’s cast. This one falls under the near hundreds of movies Dimension films who provided us much in the way of low budget horror, some was effective, some was not.

Was this effective?

As mentioned before the film is based on a Koontz novel of the same name and is given the screenplay treatment by Koontz himself. Now per usual Jess rules, I have not read the book prior to watching the movie and have not read the book in the years since for no particular reason. So judging purely from a cinematic perspective the story does a good job of creating tension and even better job of atmosphere. I can’t say the third act does the movie any justice but that is the difficulty with page to screen adaptations.

The movie is directed by Joe Chappelle, since then mostly a TV director but with shows I rather enjoyed such as Wolf Lake, Witchblade, and the Wire. He does an interesting thing in the movie to create tension. The usage of an empty town and a lot of well chosen but jarring sounds to disorient the audience and the characters. For the most part these work and most of the jump scares are not eye rollingly bad – that is a compliment by the way. He and Koontz also did a great job with the geography to assist in the feeling isolation.

Due to the nature of the story the cast remains relatively small, but effectual. The late Peter O’Toole (My Favorite Year, Lawrence of Arabia) positively owns his scenes in the film and brings weight where a lesser actor wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful or successful. We also have young, we barely knew you, Ben Affleck. He hadn’t quite learned to reserve himself yet and almost disturbingly blinks too much. Odd quirk to notice, but it’s actually kind of distracting. In another we barely knew who you were we have Liev Schrieber (Wolverine, Scream, Salt) in an oddly quirky performance that is a bit off putting, but having seen his other works tells you how good he did here. Our films heroines come in the shape of an on the rise Joanna Going (Dark Shadows 1991, Wyatt Earp) and another dimension films ingenue Rose McGowan (Scream, Charmed). Both play opposite ends of the sister spectrum pretty well with McGowan as the young city girl and Going as the small town doctor. Everyone performs OK, they do well with the panic, they do well when its time to be quiet. Nothing great, nothing really bad either. Just ok.

From an FX perspective, again minus act three, the film relies pretty strongly on practical effects, sound, and lighting to build suspense. Now given Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger of KNB EFX Group were on the project it explains so much. Now people like me know these names because of the fantastic effects work they have done over the decades and how amazing they are with gore, creatures, and prosthetics. Currently you can find their work on a no name show called The Walking Dead. These guys were incredible now and then and the movie benefits from it. The intelligence of the director to use practical effects here when possible was brilliant as the world was already moving towards not only using but abusing CG. Sadly, what digital effects were used didn’t look good then or now.


Honestly this is a pretty good, if someone dated, suspense film from early Dimensions film works that did better than it’s extraordinarily dated trailer would lead you to believe. The movie does take an odd turn late in the picture which doesn’t quite resonate but also doesn’t destroy the film either.  There are some clear edits and scenes missing, but otherwise it works.

If you aren’t a fan of horror or suspense in general – give this one a good pass. They did a good enough job here to wave you off.

If you like 90’s era suspense and horror I think you could enjoy this film.