House on Haunted Hill (1999)

SEPTEMBER 13, 2022


It wasn’t long into House on Haunted Hill that a devastating fact occurred to me: it had been 23 YEARS since I had last seen it, on opening weekend in theaters. I mean, there are some reviews on this site where I had decided to watch it as “new” because it had been maybe ten years since I last watched and thus didn’t remember it very well anymore. Hell, more than once I watched a movie thinking I hadn’t seen it yet only to find my own review of it later – and even those were only about half that length of time. TWENTY THREE YEARS!!! Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t even that old when I first watched it.

Anyway, it likely goes without saying that I didn’t remember much at all about the movie, not even why I didn’t like it much (basically all I remembered was that I didn’t feel compelled to give it another look). But my tastes have changed a lot since then, so I figured – along with the seasonal appeal* – it might be fun to finally watch the blu-ray I was sent years ago. Alas, I still don’t think much of the movie, but at least this time I can write down why, so in another 23 years, when I get a copy on 16K Ultra Mega Highest Possible Def Brain Implant Disc, I can hopefully find the brainpower to find this old review and realize that there’s probably something else I should do with my increasingly limited time left.

The weird thing about the movie is that it sets up a more fun, trickster-y narrative than it ends up being, and never quite recovers from the tonal shift. We quickly meet Geoffrey Rush (channeling James Woods just as much as, if not more than, Vincent Price) as he takes some reporters on his fiendish new roller coaster that uses some kind of holographic tech to simulate a derailed car in front of the one that the actual riders are on, and then his wife (Famke Janssen in full fatale mode) in a bubble bath, plotting some future scheme. So even if you haven’t seen the original, you’ll probably get the idea that the movie is about the two of them in a sort of War of the Roses-type battle with the rest of the cast (Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, etc) caught in the middle.

But alas, there’s precious little of that. I think they only have two more scenes together before splitting into different parts of the house, with Janssen “dying” at the halfway point (if that far?) and Rush clearly not behind the spooky shenanigans that are occurring, as he is frightened by a corpse when he’s by himself. It’s the rare remake (in my opinion anyway) that could have benefited from copying more of the original; the tête-à-tête between Price and Carol Ohmart was one of the 1959 film’s greatest assets, and these two are just as up for having fun – but the script barely lets them sink their teeth into the dynamic. And there isn’t anything else fun in its place, unless you are as amused by Chris Kattan’s mugging as audiences presumably were in 1999 (I couldn't even stand him then, so you can imagine how well his shtick landed for me now).

Instead it’s a rather repetitive affair once Famke is removed from the group, as it focuses almost entirely on Larter, Diggs, and Kattan wandering around the dungeon-y basement levels of the house, peppered with occasional scares and appearances by Rush, who they keep thinking is the real bad guy. Alas, we know he’s not, so there’s no real drive to the mystery of it all, and it’s hard to root for the heroes when they keep trying to basically kill the innocent Rush every time he shows up to try to help them (and himself) escape the damn place. And despite a fairly prominent billing, Jeffrey Combs doesn’t appear nearly enough as Vannacutt, the actual villain, the ghost of the insane doctor who ran the asylum that the house used to be.

And that leads me to what really kills the movie for me: the crappy “Darkness” that serves as the primary villain for the film’s final sequence, where the survivors are chased through the house by what is basically a swirling mass of visual effects. It’s NOT CGI (as I may have mistakenly referred to it in the past), but it’s not a flesh and blood being either – it’s a bunch of footage that has been composited together (and not that well, though a bit of phoniness is fitting with the source material) and floats around to give chase but respectfully keeps its distance whenever the heroes are hampered by a broken floor or whatever. It’s just not an exciting conclusion in the slightest, after what’s been a fairly hit or miss series of events to begin with. A knockout ending coulda saved it in an “all is forgiven” kind of way, but instead it blows away what minimal goodwill the movie had built up by that point.

Not that it’s without merit. Again, Rush and Janssen are having a blast, so all that stuff, however brief, makes it worth a look. And the cast is kooky enough to admire; Lisa Loeb and James “Spike” Marsters show up as the aforementioned reporters, Peter Gallagher in a rare genre turn as Janssen’s secret lover, and – hell yeah – Peter Graves even pops up as himself on a true crime show Janssen is watching. Plus Combs, who wasn’t exactly someone you’d see in the multiplexes all that often (between this and the previous year’s I Still Know, it’s a damn shame that the most mainstream audiences ever saw of this terrific actor were in two of his junkiest movies). The production design is also top notch; I realize that I didn’t love any Dark Castle movie until House of Wax (their I think fifth film?) but I’ll go to bat for the sets in everything prior, at least.

Plus, I was surprised how damn WEIRD it got at times; Malone is not a mainstream-leaning guy, and it was kind of charming to look back, with fresher memories of FearDotCom and Parasomnia in my mind, to realize he was getting some of that anarchy through on his first major studio release. The scene where Rush is locked in a deprivation tank is a spectacular highlight (one I unfortunately couldn’t fully watch due to the strobe lighting throughout), with Combs appearing as a sort of painting inside a zoetrope from hell – it’s a legitimately great piece of wtf-ery, in a fairly big budget movie from the same company that would be releasing You’ve Got Mail a few weeks later. Had the script dived fully into that sort of stuff after tossing the comic tone of the first half hour, I might be on board with the film as a whole, but alas, too much of it is simply spent on endless hallway wandering with the only two people you can be pretty sure are going to survive anyway.

Scream Factory’s blu-ray comes with their usual mix of older bonus features and newly created ones. The highlight is actually one of the older ones; a trio of deleted scenes with introductions by Malone, who explains why they were cut. Many of them feature Debi Mazar as Larter’s boss, which explain why Larter’s character is using a different name in the film, and there’s even a full action scene where she falls into a sort of zombie pit, which was cut for time as it was slowing down the climax some. Malone also provides a commentary, though he spends most of his time explaining this or that effect or makeup design, not too much on the story (he also pauses quite a bit, which serves as more proof that solo commentaries are almost never a good idea). He also provided a new interview, along with composer and the VFX supervisor; alas, none of the cast could be roped in to relive their experiences, though by all accounts past and present they were all great to work with and fully cooperative – no one was treating this as some junky horror that was beneath them, even when it came to the less glamorous parts (i.e. getting covered in blood and such).

I wish I could like these earlier Dark Castle movies more; I genuinely loved the idea of reviving the old William Castle properties and using modern gimmickry (i.e. CGI) to bring new life into them, but as I said, it didn’t really click for me until House of Wax, and after that they basically stopped doing remakes anyway. They all seem to start better than they end (Ghost Ship being the best example), so I always end up feeling disappointed, as it’s obviously better to have a good/great finale after a so-so beginning instead of the other way around. I never fully dislike any of them, but until Wax I was always walking out thinking “Eh, worth the one watch but I never need to see it again.” And then I end up rewatching them again 15-20 years later anyway and not really changing my mind. Someone please stop me from revisiting Gothika if that one ever lands in my lap!

What say you?

*As I've said before, the season isn't complete until you've watched at least one Vincent Price movie, and the OG House on Haunted Hill is a perfect option. I probably would have just watched that again if I hadn't already gotten my Price fix earlier in the week with Pit & The Pendulum. But for everyone else - the 1959 Hill is the way to go if you only have time for one this year!

1 comment:

  1. Holy CRAP, you mean to tell me that there's a deleted scene explaining the Ali Larter Name Change? I've spent years decrying this movie, with one of my major criticisms being "the filmmakers were so damn lazy that they changed a main character's name and didn't even notice it."


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