One night in the house, one million bucks, no questions asked. But there is a catch for anyone who accepts the offer. Murder is a way of life at the House on Haunted Hill, a jolting, effects-ramped remake of the 1959 cult classic that starred Vincent Price and was directed by screen horror legend William Castle. Geoffrey Rush plays twisted theme park bigshot Steven Price, who’s hosting a scary/jokey birthday bash for his wife (Famke Janssen) at an abandoned institutue for the criminally insane. Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher and Chris Kattan portray strangers mysteriously assembled for the event that could make them all very rich. Or profoundly dead. And you? We won’t start the party without you.
eyelights: Geoffrey Rush. Famke Jensen. Ali Larter. the concept.
eyesores: its tone. its seriousness.
“Now, that’s enter-fucking-tainment!”
1999’s ‘House on Haunted Hill’ is a motion picture based on 1959 cult classic starring Vincent Price. It was the first production of newly-formed movie company called Dark Castle Entertainment, whose initial intention was to focus on remaking William Castle’s iconic horror films.
It did exactly that, starting with ‘House on Haunted Hill’ and then ‘13 Ghosts‘. Neither of them were tremendous successes, which may account for the company branching out into other horror titles, and then non-horror fare. Their greatest commercial success was the widely-panned ‘Gothika’.
‘House on Haunted Hill’ is dumb fun. It takes the premise of the original and spins it on its head slightly, changing the setting and many of the characters, crafting a different sort of ride. Its core intention, much like its forebear, is simply to have a good time for a little over an hour.
This is made abundantly clear due to the fact that its lead, Stephen Price (played with scenery-chewing glee by Geoffrey Rush), is an amusement park mogul – if there is such a thing. When we are introduced to the showman, he is showing off his latest rides to a journalist (played by Lisa Loeb).
Price was originally supposed to be a generic businessman, but Rush decided to camp it out: his original intention was to model Price after John Waters. But, when he turned out looking more like Vincent Price, he and director William Malone decided to keep that look instead.
Price is financing his spouse’s birthday party. Because he despises Evelyn (who is played to bitchy glory by Famke Janssen), he not only rents out a former asylum for the party, but shreds her guest list and makes up his own, comprised of a handful of money-hungry individuals.
His intention: to have a macabre soirée at the asylum and offer each party-goer one million dollars if they survive the night (with their amount added to the pot if they don’t). But little does he know that someone has changed the guest list, and complete strangers are invited instead.
It is going to be a party that none of them will ever forget.
I had fond recollections of this picture when I sat down to watch it again. Although it hadn’t blown me away the first time, I had very much enjoyed the cast (especially Rush) and liked the spin that the filmmakers gave to the original story. In the end, I had found it fairly entertaining.
This holds true today.
Although it starts off with some hokey opening credits that try to be modern, gritty, but look second-rate, and has a weak third act, it winks at its audience enough to be droll and satisfying (ex: the Peter Graves’ account of what took place at the sanatorium in 1931, which looks like an old newsreel).
It also borrows a few of the kitschier elements of the original, such as the funeral cortege that drives the unsuspecting guests out to the party, or the small coffin boxes that Price uses to serve up pistols to the guests as protection (although this gimmick is introduced earlier on here).
What I enjoyed the most, aside for the premise (which I adore), was the cast: when the credits rolled, I knew everybody. Plus which I couldn’t believe my luck to find Famke Janssen, Ali Larter and Bridgette Wilson together in one film. Could I possibly ask for better eye candy than this?
- Geoffrey Rush chews the scenery just like this a showman of Price’s caliber would. But, behind the scenes, Price can also be callous, manipulative and unshakeable. Rush was good enough to broach these two highly-disparate behaviours and he was a lot of fun.
- Famke Janssen is terrific as his spouse: she curses like a sailor, is sarcastic, cynical, jaded and hardened. Frankly, she’s a real byatch – but at least she isn’t a wallflower. Janssen delivered on all counts. She may not be an award-winning actress, but I always like her.
- Ali Larter plays Jennifer, an independent, smart, capable and skilled young woman, whose past isn’t entirely clear. I like how strong this character is. As with Janssen, Larter may not be the most gifted actress, but she’s good enough, and I always like seeing her on screen.
- Bridgette Wilson is by far the weak link of the lot. She plays Melissa, a fading starlet who is trying to reboot her career by filming everything she does for a potential reality show. The character is vacuous and Wilson gives her no emotional resonance either.
- Taye Diggs plays Eddie, an ex-baseball player. Diggs is a natural in the part, but I hated that he was pigeonholed because he’s an African-American: they’re always either athletes or a rappers. Why couldn’t he have landed the part of the doctor, instead? Humph.
- Peter Gallagher is Dr. Blackburn. When I first saw him in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’, I thought he was stellar. But ever since then, his performances (at least he ones I’ve seen) come off as a slightly unrealistic. It doesn’t matter much because this doctor is quite generic.
- Chris Kattan plays the only character who was also in the original, Watson Pritchet, the owner of the venue. Kattan isn’t exactly superb in the part, his second silver screen outing. But, if the character was intended to be lame and weird, then I guess he succeeded to some degree.
‘House on Haunted Hill’ succeeds with its first act, introducing the premise and the characters, is moderately successful in the second act, when things get out of hand in the old asylum (and we realize that it may very well be haunted), but it stumbles when it tries to deliver the final punch.
By that point, things have unraveled to such a degree that it’s total chaos in there: we don’t know who’s behind what, what is real and what isn’t, and the outcome is largely unsatisfying, leaving us with a conclusion that is neither credible nor truly conclusive. Or particularly scary.
But, all in all, ‘House on Haunted Hill’ is a fun ride. And that’s all it was ever really intended to be: 90 minutes of visceral terror and humour. It’s a flawed effort, certainly, but compared to many of its peers it does a respectable job of it. The fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously helps.
And since the original ‘House on Haunted Hill’ is also a flawed, this remake by no means ruins the camp classic; they are different perspectives on the same premise, with each their respective strengths and weaknesses. As far as midnight movies go, either one would prove a good choice.
But remember: past midnight, there’s no escaping ‘House on Haunted Hill’.
Post scriptum: the film was enough of a success (most likely on home video) to warrant a sequel. ‘Return to House on Haunted Hill’ couldn’t sustain the interest of this picture, unfortunately, and was panned across the board. It would be the last in the fledgling franchise.
Date of viewing: October 8, 2014