Back in 1999, the horror genre was a different game. We were in the wake of the post-modern, self-referential Scream clones, but there was room for something a little more creepy and atmospheric. Remakes hadn’t become an epidemic, despite a couple of reviled ones surfacing. Then arose Dark Castle Entertainment who wanted to re-fashion several old William Castle black & white scare flicks for a modern audience. In the long run, their attempts took a quick, steep decline in quality, but their first effort was House on Haunted Hill, which originally starred classic horror icon Vincent Price. This was an interesting effort that left many critics of the day very cold, but I have always found it to be an effective, if slightly flawed film that did entertain.
Eccentric millionaire and amusement park thrill ride mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) learns that his vindictive wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), twistedly chooses to hold her birthday party at the “House on Haunted Hill.” The house used to be the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane until a violent mass murder marked its end decades ago. Being an equally twisted master of thrills, Steven plans to alter his wife’s guest list, but the vengeful spirits of the house have other plans. When the five guests arrive at the house, they are met by Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), whose grandfather designed the house, and whose father helped build it. After a bit of a scare to jump start them all, Steven Price reveals himself and his intentions in grand fashion – he knows no other way. If these guests can all survive the night, they will receive one million dollars each, and if any should die, their money shall be divided up between the survivors. Obviously, none of them know why they’ve been invited to this place, and neither do Steven or Evelyn. However, when the house suddenly and mysteriously goes into lockdown, sealing off all exits, and further bizarre, frightening incidents occur, they slowly begin to heed Pritchett’s claims of the house being haunted by the murderous spirits of the inmates who were killed here decades ago.
House on Haunted Hill is an immensely creepy film. There is a wealth of frighteningly chaotic and psychotic imagery that will have most audiences jumping out of their skin. It has a very classic haunted house ghost story, but with a modern intensity. There’s a mix of subtle, ominous moments, and intense in-your-face, bone rattling scares. One of the best chilling moments is when one of the characters, toting a video camera, comes across a room of ghosts who are only visible via the video camera. She observes them for a moment before they all become aware that she is watching them. The scene is then punctuated with one of the film’s biggest exclamation points. It’s a deeply effective scene on multiple levels with a creepy setup and startling conclusion.
The film really incorporates plenty of dark, eerie atmosphere and a chilling sound design to keep an audience rattled and on edge. The cinematography by Rick Bota is very powerful with an abundance of shadows and clever, moody lighting which set a very rich tone throughout the picture. There’s a very effective score by Don Davis who incorporates some dark, heavy compositions that really drive home the imminent danger and ominous, haunting qualities here. His score never allows you to feel very safe at any moment in the film, but still is able to strongly punctuate the right scares at the right times.
Making the house an actual former asylum for the criminally insane run by a madman was a great idea. It opened the film up to some extremely disturbing visuals such as when Steven Price is locked in the “saturation chamber” which causes sensory overload, and forces him to become delusional. All of that archaic, jagged medical equipment really added a creepy feeling to the bowels of the house. It just has a very hard edged industrial look that brings out a very primal fear. The Dr. Vannacutt character himself comes off as immensely disturbing without ever speaking a word, and seeing his ghost stalk the house always sends chills up and down my spine. The bizarre, jittery motion of Vannacutt presents something so unnatural that it is downright creepy. Not only is this place haunted, but it’s haunted by the mentally disturbed. The creep factor couldn’t be richer in that regard. It’s a very smart creative direction for this remake. It adds something new to the mix without altering the base concept.
The cast here is all gold all the way through. You can never deny the wonderful charismatic work of Geoffrey Rush. He leads the film with a very sly, venomous quality and a rich helping of enthusiasm. He was having a lot of fun playing this role. Steven Price will do anything for a good scare. That makes the character both very interesting and entertaining, but also, a cutthroat foil for certain characters. Being so cunningly manipulative and dastardly egotistical, he is easily viewed as shady and coldly villainous. Overall, Steven Price is a showman, and there couldn’t have been a better actor to bring those elegant, classy qualities to life than Geoffrey Rush. Also, the mustache was a nice touch to his appearance emulating the look of Vincent Price.
There is a dark, spicy performance here from Famke Janssen who is right up to Geoffrey Rush’s level as a conniving, devilish woman. There’s no lack of a dangerous edge to Evelyn as she proves to be capable of wicked, devious turns. The love-hate relationship between the unhappily married Prices is a juicy bit of conflict in the film, and provides a lot of fine material for Rush and Janssen to work with. Their chemistry is deliciously vile, and creates an enthralling, passionate fire to keep the film lively.
Chris Kattan has great comedic energy, as always. He plays up Pritchett’s skittish fear in a very entertaining way. He’s the one person that knows the dreadful reality of the house, and that frightful knowledge really manifests in a very funny yet prophetic performance. It adds levity where needed while bolstering the grim threat that the house does possess. Kattan’s performance really sets a foreboding tone that plays nicely off of Geoffrey Rush’s more mischievous, enjoyably despicable style.
The always vibrant Taye Diggs plays the strong heroic type in the ex-pro baseball player Eddie Baker. Diggs is a bright talent with a lot of charm and charisma who never fails to endear himself to an audience, and that’s no different here. The beautiful Ali Larter from Final Destination fame gives us a solid, assertive performance as Sara Wolfe that really drives her into the forefront by the end. Bridgette Wilson does nicely as the ambitious Melissa, but has the least amount of screentime of the main cast to really breakout. Of course, the wonderfully talented Peter Gallagher brings a subtle, engaging intelligence to Donald W. Blackburn, M.D., and showcases a fine tinge of humor and a perfectly seedy dark side. He has a nice twist in the film that fits comfortably into the treacherous, scheming ways of the Prices. Capping it off is genre great Jeffrey Combs who puts in an excellently psychotic and spine-tingling performance as Dr. Vannacutt.
Granted, aside from Steven and Evelyn Price, the characters aren’t given all that much to work with. They’re essentially one-note characters, but in a lively, entertaining B-movie style with high quality talents behind them. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and basically just wants you to have fun scaring you in the most effective ways possible. With a solid cast that has very natural chemistry together, it makes that approach work very well.
The film does have some highly effective visual effects, and the practical effects are yet again done by the standard bearers of the industry – KNB EFX Group. You’re likely to see them pop up in a lot of reviews I’m doing for Forever Horror Month because of that fact. While House on Haunted Hill is not very heavy on splatter effects, it does have its generous helping of blood, a few graphic images that required only the best to achieve them.
The digital effects near the end when the full dark spirits are unleashed are arguable if they’re up to the standards of 1999 era CGI. Regardless, they still come off as very lacking, in retrospect. To my eyes, they just seem rather typical and not exceptional in conception or execution. They seem more akin to what you’d see if this were adapted into a video game at the time, but for the big monstrous evil to cap off the film, it is a definite nose dive. While some effects in this climactic sequence are a little better than others, the CGI apparition just doesn’t do much at all for me. It’s a failure in design, primarily, and quite lackluster in execution. For a film that showed some strong creativity in its scares and production design, this feels like someone running out of good ideas at the last minute. This digital creation definitely could’ve used more creative thought put into it for a more unique impact.
The ending overall is not the best it could have been. It just sort of shifts into high gear racing to the end credits in the last ten minutes discarding with much of the plot and suspense it had built up, and it dispatches of its characters very swiftly. The richly enjoyable characters just don’t have a conclusion befitting their performances, and are disposed of like ripe smelling trash. While the “darkness” is setup early on, the creep factor of the film is so focused on the Vannacutt spirit and the other twisted ghosts that it just goes a little off-kilter when it takes a turn into that full-on CGI creation stalking the characters. The film could’ve used a far smoother and natural transition into its final act, and had a more prolonged climax to allow for a more graceful resolution for each member of this stellar cast. As it is, a great scene of Steven and Evelyn literally at each others’ throats is cut short to unleash this manifestation of evil. It’s an abrupt shift in the momentum and direction of the film, and in this case, it works against the better strengths of the film. It’s not a bad ending, just one that disappoints when the build up had more potential. A better setup would have been showing this darkness slowly leaking out throughout the film until it finally forms out in the open, thus, allowing for an underlying foreboding tension to build as the film goes on. It would allow the knowledge that this darker, more powerful evil is soon to befall these characters instead of springing it onto an audience in sudden fashion.
I do like the reveal of why the ghosts chose these people to invite to the party. It fulfills the vengeful spirit angle smartly, and gives a purpose to collecting an unlikely group of strangers here. How it pays off at the very end is rather cheap, and adds to the weakness of the film’s conclusion. That whole ending just feels like a different screenwriter took over without a fraction of the ambition for creativity as the rest of the movie. I will give credit to how the Steven Price character continually enhances the danger, tension, and distrust as the film goes on. Giving everyone a handgun is the first unsettling step. The fact that he has the house wired up with video cameras, and likely has plenty of wild tricks setup throughout the house, heightens that shady air of distrust. He establishes the intense, sly situation with a devilish smirk so that everyone can easily accuse Price of these strange occurrences, and they constantly do so throughout the film as people die or go missing. This creates a strong conflict as Price sees the ghost of Vannacutt stalking through the house, knowing exactly who is responsible, even if he doesn’t believe what he is. It’s a smart dynamic which maintains a level of heightened tension, paranoia, and suspense amongst these diverse personalities. There’s enough uncertainty circulating amongst these characters to constantly question what to believe. It keeps them nicely off-balance for an exciting, intense ride. Generally speaking, the premise is nicely laid out with a tight pacing that keeps the thrills coming at a regular interval.
The direction of William Malone is superb as he easily gave us the best film from Dark Castle Entertainment. Obviously, it has its flaws near the end, but up until then, it is a film of solid, spine chilling scares with plenty of creepy atmosphere. It has plenty of fun thrills that will satisfy a late night desire for a haunted house tale. The film is worth seeing just for the entertaining cast with Geoffrey Rush and Chris Kattan the most enjoyable among them. House on Haunted Hill was a decent success for Dark Castle that I think holds more entertainment value than most critics gave it credit for. It’s certainly not a great horror movie, but it’s definitely a good one that delivers on the scares. I do recommend it, but just don’t expect much from the ending. Enjoy the good while it lasts!