There's something strange in Hill Houseâ€šs neighborhood, leaving Judge Paul Pritchard to ask, "Who ya gonna call?"
Kyle: "Pretty creepy, isn't it? You know, they say that the souls of the
people that died here apparently still haunt the house. "
The sequel nobody asked for is finally here, as the direct-to-video follow up to the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill enters the Hi-Def arena, with a few surprises in store for early adopters of the new(ish) high definition formats.
Facts of the Case
The 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill was one of the more forgettable remakes of recent times. Rather than willingly let you suffer having to sit through the limp, scare-free yawn-athon, I'll give you a brief rundown of the story. A disparate group of not particularly likeable individuals are offered $1,000,000 to spend a night in Hill House by eccentric billionaire Steven Price. Of course, the rumors that the house is haunted prove to be true and all but two meet a grisly death.
The sequel picks up some years later when archaeologist Dr. Richard Hammer discovers the house is the resting place of the Baphomet Idol. An evil yet incredibly valuable artifact, it acts as the film's McGuffin. Of course as Indiana Jones will testify, archaeology is a dangerous business, and when one of Hammer's rivals (and former student) Desmond Niles arrives at the house, accompanied not only his armed goons but also the sister of the original films survivor as his hostage, the race is on to recover the idol. The house, of course, has other ideas…
Is it just me, or has there been a drastic and slightly unsettling change in the way filmmakers approach the horror genre in recent years? I'm not talking about the almost monthly release of remakes of classic and not-so-classic titles, more the way that everything has a music video look to it and genuine scares are replaced by excessive gore? I know this is far from an original complaint and horror fans have been making this argument for years, but after sitting through Return to House on Haunted Hill, I'm sorry to say the only genuine scare I had was when a piece of the chocolate I was eating went down the wrong way causing me to momentarily choke. Don't worry I'm fine now, it was my own fault, but the film itself gave me nothing, nada, zip.
Still, a lack of scares needn't be fatal if the film can still manage to entertain on some other level and this, I'm afraid it frequently struggles to do. What we have here is a haunted house movie by the numbers, a few inventive kills, and a three-way lesbian scene where two of the participants in the ménage-a-trois are ghosts. Classy!
The film sets out to explain the reason for the evil forces that control Hill House, this turns out to be the Baphomet Idol. A cursed artifact with corrupting powers, it was this idol that consumed Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) when the house was still a mental hospital, resulting in his ghastly practices, leaving a steady stream of mutilated corpses. These very same victims now haunt the corridors of Hill House, brutally killing anyone who dares enter and using staples of the J-Horror genre (long hair covering all but one eye, odd or jerky movements) in an attempt to scare the viewer and failing miserably. While I can't say the film was completely horrible (it's certainly watchable), it just didn't add anything new to the horror genre or do anything particularly well—apart from the aforementioned ménage-a-trois.
This Blu-Ray release offers a very impressive 1080p transfer. The image is razor sharp with a high level of detail even in darker scenes. This is especially surprising, since this is a direct-to-video title. Colors range from bright and vibrant in daytime scenes set outdoors to muted colors in the darker scenes when wandering the corridors of Hill House. Throw in deep blacks and we have an above-average high-definition release.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is flawless yet unspectacular. Sounds are clear and defined; yet I was surprised to find the benefits of surround sound not being utilized. I failed to notice many, if any, creaking doors or footsteps coming from the rear speakers in an attempt to scare the viewer. Instead we get a front-heavy mix that does its job but nothing more.
The extras set out to add a little meat to the movie in the way of the Character Confessionals Gallery, where we learn each character's motivation for entering the house. The "Search for an Idol" feature is a short piece explaining the history on the Baphomet Idol. While neither of these features is likely to be watched more than once, they at least attempt to add to the Hill House mythos. Additional scenes and a music video round out the package. All in all the special features prove to be not so special after all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Thankfully at 81 minutes the film breezes by and does offer a few decent kills and laughs. Also, Jeffrey Combs is always a pleasant addition to any movie and is the one standout performance, despite the fact his role is almost entirely silent. He is the only part of the film that offers any menace or real threat.
Now let's touch upon what will really make this disc sell and actually makes it worth owning. I remember the early Nineties when the videogame world was awash with talk of the interactive movie. Titles such as the infamous Night Trap promised us the chance to watch a movie where we, the viewer, could have an effect on the outcome. Of course in practice, this was nowhere near as cool as it sounded. Since then videogame technology has advanced to the point where games like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune have huge budgets and we have consoles with the horsepower to actually allow players to partake in a Hollywood blockbuster in the comfort of their living rooms. Does that mean the old concept of the interactive movie is dead? Well the answer appears to be "no"; it's just been renamed as (drum roll please) Navigational Cinema, a new technology developed by Warner Bros. to take advantage of the capabilities of the new HD formats. Do you want to find out how it works? Yes/no. Please make your choice.
By selecting the "Play Your Way" option rather than the "Directors Version" the viewer is given a chance to "control the nightmare" and make decisions that will dictate the events on screen.
At certain points in the movie the viewer will be presented with a screen asking them to make a decision on what a character should do. For example, when a ghost in a nurse's uniform (complete with an unconvincing makeup job) enters the scene the viewer is asked "Should Paul Run?," at this point the viewer, remote in hand, simply selects "yes" or "no." The choice will result in a different scene playing out and possibly the character's death or survival. This is repeated at various junctions in the movie and all choices are of a simple "yes/no" or "take the map/fight the ghost" style. I heard elsewhere that all choices ended with the movie going to the same final act. Now, while most choices seem to ultimately steer back onto the main story it isn't true that you'll get the same ending. There is at least one choice, for example, that results in a drastically shorter movie and a completely different ending.
While this is clearly a gimmick it does offer a significant step up from a similar option seen on the Final Destination 3 DVD that only changed the way characters died.
Is this the future of movies? I doubt it. Surely the filmmaker's vision is lost if we are able to control events? Indeed, what makes us scared of horror movies in the first place is the fact we aren't in control of the events unfolding and are simply forced to witness them. By offering us control the movie is completely removing that feeling of powerlessness. Thankfully the alternate paths offer as many horrors as the original version of the movie, no matter how limp they are and, for those interested, a little more nudity.
Slightly more enjoyable than the tepid original, the film still fails to be an effective horror. If this review were for the standard DVD release I would find myself unable to recommend it. However, the Blu-Ray version is worth picking up as a demonstration disc to show what the HD format is capable of. The excellent image quality, coupled with the "Play Your Way" feature, is something a lot of early adopters are likely to be enticed by. Get a few friends round, have a couple of drinks and it actually makes for a fun time.
Just as the movie was about to be sent down for crimes against horror, the "Play Your Way" feature presented a stunning defense leaving the Judge forced to declare the release not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Character Confessionals Gallery
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