Jan 22, 2015

Review: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The original 1959 House on Haunted Hill can't really be called a scary movie. Maybe it was back then, but William Castle's cult classic is delightful campy fun that features the usual great Vincent Prince performance. There's no way that a modern remake can capture that same kind of campiness, so it's going to have to be genuinely scary.

Terry Castle, the daughter of William Castle, is on as a co-producer which I suppose is a good sign. The list of producers also includes quite a few big names like Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver. House on Haunted Hill was actually the debut film for Dark Castle Entertainment, a production house that Zemeckis and Silver formed that pays homage to William Castle. So they must be pretty serious about all this right? I certainly hoped so before I started watching.


Genre: horror, mystery, thriller
Directed by: William Malone
Produced by: Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, etc.
Written by: Dick Beebe
Music by: Don Davis
Running time: 93 minutes
Production company: Dark Castle Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Helkon Filmverleih GmbH, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $37,000,000
Box office: $40,846,082 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combs, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters



Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) is a successful amusement park owner who prides himself on being a master of fright. He's in a marriage that has turned sour with Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen) and he ghoulishly decides to hold her birthday party in a closed insane asylum that was famous for burning everyone inside alive after a series of events involving a doctor performing experiments on patients. He also creates his own guest list. The guests who arrive however are not the ones that he invited. Unperturbed, Steven offers each guest one million dollars if they survive the night. Is this all a show being put on or is there truly something evil in the asylum?


House on Haunted Hill is pretty 90's in a lot of the wrong ways. It's gaudy, it enjoys being full of references, it's chock full of dated CGI and it even features Marylin Manson's cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" for some reason. However, these may be the least of this horror film's crimes.

There's a surprising amount of gore and it uses this red fire hydrant-coloured blood. Most of the gore is used to get a cheap and quick reaction without much more thought than that. It also doesn't help that HoHH is massively overproduced and overedited. Attempts at dressing up the gore with some fancy editing don't cut it and it's the kind of thing that ruins a lot of the other scares in the film.

It's a shame really because there are actually some pretty scary creations and images in HoHH. There's just way too much dressing up and overloading going on, not to mention upping up the volume during these scenes. That's an unforgivable sin in horror movies for me personally. I guess it's no surprise that there are a couple of cheap jump scares as well and they're of the person suddenly walking into the frame variety.

I wasn't surprised that characters displayed some pretty poor decision-making skills. Does it sounds like a good idea to you to go down into the basement on your own and film with a camera? This scene actually does provide one of the film's few creepy scenes though. This is nothing compared to the complete lack of awareness when Sara Wolfe (Ali Larter) somehow misses that Eddie (Taye Diggs) isn't beside her anymore as she babbles on about whatever nonsense she's spewing down in the maze-like basement. Why on earth does he hang back anyway? It's too frustrating for words, not civilized ones anyway.

There are a few good things about House on Haunted Hill and it starts with Geoffrey Rush. He doesn't give an earth-shattering performance or anything, but his presence makes things a lot better. Compared to the relative anonymity of all the other performers, he's solid gold. His name and appearance are a clear references to Vincent Price and that's a little much for me.

One thing I'd also like to give House on Haunted Hill a pat on the back for is breaking an important horror movie convention. (Spoilers) The fact that Taye Diggs' character doesn't die in the first few rounds of killings as black characters in horror movies usually do was astounding to me. He actually makes it out as one of two survivors which is completely unprecedented and sad that this is something to be celebrated. (End Spoilers) Credit when credit is due.

House On Haunted Hill has a few tricks up its sleeve, but it falls victim to merciless editing and visual overloading. It also doesn't help that the climax is a CGI show that hasn't aged very well to put things kindly. Geoffrey Rush however was a great casting decision though and a very good candidate to take up Vincent Price's role even if the whole thing was a bit too heavy on the fan service.



Related Reviews:

House on Haunted Hill (1959) 
Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007)

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