This month I will not only be revisiting horror films, but also an often forgotten production team that brought us several big “popcorn” hits. In 1999, two of the biggest names in film making joined together to start a film production. The names were Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, and the company was Dark Castle Entertainment. Originally affiliated with Warner Brothers, Dark Castle has since come under the Universal family umbrella. Named in homage to horror film maker of the 50’s and 60’s William Castle, the production company intended to remake several of Castle’s work. The first output of the company was a remake of the Vincent Price led hit House on Haunted Hill. This is my Sunday with… House on Haunted Hill.
House On Haunted Hill
Release Date: October 29, 1999
Run Time: 93 minutes
Starring: Geoffrey Rush
Director: William Malone
Rob’s Score: 5.5/10
“I lied. The house is alive. We’re all gonna die.” – Pritchett
Our film opens up with a flash back scene to a now abandoned mental hospital. The head doctor at the time, Dr. Vannacutt, would perform horrifying experiments on his patients. One night in 1931, the patients escaped their cells and ran amok through the entire hospital that resulted in a fire, killing everyone inside except for five people. Flash forward to the present and we are introduced to Evelyn Price (Janssen), the disgruntled wife of amusement park mogul Steven Price (Rush). After seeing a news segment on the abandoned hospital, Evelyn calls her husband and demands that he rent the house for her upcoming birthday party. Being vindictive, Price destroys his wife’s guest list and creates his own, only to have his list changed when he exits his office. The evening of Evelyn’s party is at hand and the four guests arrive at the “house’. Sara Wolfe (Larter), Eddie Baker (Diggs), Melissa Marr (Wilson), and Dr. Donald Blackburn (Gallagher) are all greeted by the nervous owner of the property Watson Pritchett (Kattan). As the guests enter the house both Evelyn and Steven point out the fact that they have no idea who the guests are. They believe that this was done intentionally by the other out of spite. Despite not knowing the guests Steven continues on with the evening telling the guests that he will be giving each of them one million dollars if they can survive the night and those that do not survive will have their share divided by the “winners”. Almost as soon as Price has finished his spiel the security gates come crashing down locking everyone inside. This prompts Pritchett to tell the guests that the house is evil and that they are all pretty much screwed. Evelyn takes all of this with a grain of salt thinking it is a game by her husband and warns everyone that the house is most likely “rigged” by him; Price than reveals a set of “guns” for the guests in case they need them. Originally intended to be props they all soon find out that the guns are actually loaded. Pritchett, Jenzen, and Baker take a gun and travel into the basement to find the controls of the gate so they can all get out. In the basement they also run into Price and the group of four is soon separated. Jenzen starts seeing visions of Baker drowning and she jumps into a pool of blood to get him, only to realize he is fine standing across from her. The four eventually return to the rest of the group only to find Marr is missing. A frantic scream leads them all into the basement only to find Marr’s camera and blood stains that lead from the wall, across the ceiling, and into another wall. Now with all the guests divided into scarred and skeptic, we wonder is this all an elaborate “haunted house” created by Price, or is there something deeper and darker going on? The original House on Haunted Hill was released in 1959.
House on Haunted Hill is what I like to refer to as a teenage popcorn flick. This is a movie you go to see with a first date or with a bunch of friends, eat popcorn and laugh and have a good time for about an hour and a half. The experience of going to the movie and who you were with is just as, if not more, memorable than the movie itself. The film is over the top, filled with skin and “hot” chicks, and a ton of quick “scares”. To say the least, the plot has issues. The dialogue is very juvenile, consisting mostly of curses, and sexual innuendos that roughly bring us from one plot point to the next. As a teen, we don’t really notice the plot holes, but we are definitely paying attention to the visuals and jokes we hear. I am a perfect example of this as I really enjoyed this flick when it first came out, now not so much! However, in some way that is the charm of this movie as it brings us back to where we were or who we were with when we saw it, and for that alone it’s a good time. House on Haunted Hill brings us back to the time in our lives when we didn’t mind giving up story telling for the instant visual and comical gratification that we wanted, and that actually isn’t such a bad feeling!
As I mentioned before there are several problems with the actual plot and watching it now just comes across as a lazy script. Without giving too much away how would you not know if a family member worked at a renowned mental hospital that has since become famous?! Of all the plot holes in this film, this one bothers me most, and when it is finally brought up it is whisked away as quickly as it was discovered. I don’t want to spend too much time ripping the film down because there are several cool ideas and scenes present. The “saturation chamber” scene is perhaps my favorite in the film. It gives us as viewers a claustrophobic, unsafe feeling. Add the uneasiness of the visuals and we have what I would consider a very unsettling and scary scene. Even though I joked about it before, the juvenile jokes still made me chuckle. I know, I’m a giant child! The visuals, created by Greg Nicotero and Dick Smith, still for the most part hold up. This all culminates in the shape shifting tentacle cloud at the end that is not only quite scary, but an obvious nod to H.P. Lovecraft. The makeup creations are still good for a jump scare, and we can see the style that Nicotero would bring with him to make The Walking Dead so great.
When looking at the original and this remake next to each other, they are on the surface pretty similar. Aside from a few character backgrounds the main plots are pretty perpendicular until we reach the climax. This of course is not a problem in itself as a scene for scene remake would feel cheap and lazy. However, the original film received outstanding ratings, landing it a 96% on rotten tomatoes. The difference, at least in my opinion, was the buildup and gimmick of the original. As I will discuss in later pieces William Castle used many gimmicks when his films premiered. For the release of the 1959 film, several theaters rigged pulley systems that would release a skeleton through the theater that would coincide with a particular scene in the film. This truly made the film an immersive experience for the audience, not to mention probably terrified unsuspecting theater patrons! Aside from the gimmick, the original film itself was very campy, even breaking the “fourth wall” that made the audience feel that they were much closer to the events of the film than simply sitting in a theater. That camp and charm mixed with the gimmicks led to a very special and unique movie going experience. The remake also had a scratch off gimmick that led people to believe that they could win a million dollars like the characters in the film. As enticing as a gimmick as this is it didn’t have the all-encompassing feel that the original presentation had.
House on Haunted Hill sported a very solid ensemble cast, which unfortunately for the most part, was wasted by a lack luster script. Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, and Bridgette Wilson, all solid actors in their own right, seemed a little held back and stiff in their roles. Chris Kattan offered solid comic relief and was actually pretty believable as the terrified owner of the property. A majority of the sex jokes come from Famke Janssen, but boy did she sell it! She was perfectly cast as the unhappy conniving seductress. Aside from being absolutely beautiful her whole delivery could have convinced any man to commit murder!
I saved my two favorite parts of this film for last – the first being Geoffrey Rush. Rush is an absolutely amazing actor and this role was no different. It was stated that the character was dedicated to Vincent Price, and it is so obvious. From the clothing to the mustache, the character screams Price. Rush, as usual, delivers an amazing over the top performance and he perfectly blended mystery, and an almost childlike fervor and charm into an amazing character. Every scene he is in he steals, and you could tell that he had an absolute blast with this role. His enjoyment bursts off the scene and actually dictates the viewer’s mood. My second favorite part of this film is the score. The use of over bearing organs truly gives the film a feeling of dread that carries us from beginning to end. Sections from Don Davis’ original score are mixed in to give the film more of a connection to the original and the inclusion of Marilyn Manson’s (one of my favorite artist’s) version of “Sweet Dreams” is a perfect inclusion to the feel and style of the film.
House on Haunted Hill, despite very negative reviews, opened up at number one in the box office and has spawned a direct to DVD sequel. While this version may not be as beloved as the original, it is still worth a second viewing, if for nothing more than to rekindle past memories, or just to enjoy a fantastic performance by the great Geoffrey Rush.