Our reviews of House On Haunted Hill (1958) (published September 13th, 2005), RiffTrax: House on Haunted Hill (published May 22nd, 2009), and Vincent Price Double Feature (published December 23rd, 2004) are also available.
Six strangers have the chance to make $1,000,000 each. All they have to do is make it through the night alive.
Last year not one, but two remakes of vintage haunted house movies were turned out by major studios for the Halloween season. House on Haunted Hill is a remake of a 1959 Vincent Price movie directed by schlockmeister William Castle. While it had a neat premise it depended on its campiness and the unjaded eyes of 1950s moviegoers to accept the special effects and the film. For modern audiences the effects look downright hilarious, and this made it ready for a modern update. So much was right with this film that I actually enjoyed the remake despite myself. I say that because so much is wrong with it too. Perhaps the least of which is that the director was William Malone, who has the distinction of having written the worst movie I've reviewed to date—Universal Soldier: The Return. Ironically he did not write this movie, because it is in the writing rather than directing the movie suffers most. Still a very nice disc from Warner, with a great anamorphic transfer and even better soundtrack, along with a nice collection of extra features.
I have to admit the beginning of the film and part of its premise was truly scary material to work from. A foreboding Albert Speer-style architecture building sits on a hill. In 1931, this building is a hospital for the criminally insane, with a horrid sadist named Dr. Vannacutt running it. He's in the middle of performing surgery on a patient without benefit of any anesthesia when the patients revolt, killing the staff and themselves in a fire. You just know all these tortured souls will be around later. For a nice bonus, Jeffrey Combs, the mad doctor from Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator plays the evil doctor here as well.
Geoffrey Rush (Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love, Mystery Men) plays Stephen Price, whose name is an homage to the late great Vincent Price, who played the role he undertakes in the original film. Rush's character comes off as some sort of hybrid of Vincent Price and P.T. Barnum in his role as a wealthy thrill park designer and owner. Like the original character, he is holding a birthday party for his wife at a haunted house, and has a twist: each guest who stays the night and lives through it will get a cool million in cash. There is a plot within a plot here as it appears that Price and his wife hate each other and would like nothing better than to see the other one dead. So much of the time you have to wonder if what happens is really the machinations of one of the two spouses rather than the house, which keeps you on your toes.
At any rate, Price shreds his wife's guest list for the party and makes his own. These people, all strangers to each other, are led to the house (obviously the ex-hospital from the beginning) by Chris Kattan (of Saturday Night Live fame), the overwrought owner of the house who seems one step from a nervous breakdown. The guests include Eddie (Taye Diggs, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Best Man), Peter Gallagher (Titanic, The Man Who Knew Too Little, American Beauty) as Dr. Blackburn, and Sara (Ali Larter Final Destination, Varsity Blues), who stole her ex-bosses invitation. There they find out about the million-dollar offer just in time for the house to "shut down"; steel plates come down to cover all doors and windows. We'd already seen Dr. Vannacutt make the same thing happen in 1931 so it's no big surprise. Now people get separated (as they always do, despite any sane thoughts to the contrary) and start dropping one by one. The house comes to life (as they often do) and things get stranger and stranger.
There are a lot of nice touches within the story and the film itself. One scene taken from the original has Price giving each guest a loaded handgun that sits in its own mini-coffin which itself sits inside a full size coffin. All the better to kill off that pesky spouse. Another scene from the original has the not-so-lovely couple talking about the murder attempts the wife (Famke Jannsen, The Faculty, Rounders, Goldeneye) has made on him, so certainly he's not the only bad one in the marriage. What is new in this version though is the house; the set design was excellent with both ornate living areas and labyrinthine passageways below. Horrid sculptures and moldy walls line the ways below that the group must follow in order to find the controls to the steel panels entrapping them. Even more horrid devices from the days when Dr. Vannacutt performed his experiments await as well, and give off a truly eerie feel. The gothic style of both sets and shooting, along with a very 1930s homage feel to everything was among the film's strongest points.
Despite some gaping holes in the plot (I'll get into that later) I found myself really enjoying much of the movie. It can be fun playing "who's going to die next and how" after all. There were quite a few scares and not a little gore, which was well done as these flicks go. I applaud the dearth of "Boo!" type scares that turn out to be innocent coincidences. The plots within the plot were entertaining as well.
Forgetting the film for a moment, this is a great disc. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer is first rate. Despite the fact that most of the movie takes place in low light, scenes are always clear and detailed. Colors are well saturated (maybe a hint too well) and shine in the brighter scenes, and there is no hint of artifacting or edge enhancement problem. There were a few specks on the film print but they were hard to notice. Overall a very clean, film-like look.
The soundtrack is even better. Why B grade horror and action movies get some of the best soundtracks I don't know, but this one is great. The only flaw is that I found that I had to boost the center channel several decibels to clearly hear the dialogue. Other than that, the soundstage is wide and deep, taking advantage of all channels and the spaces in between even the front and rear. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is aggressive in its use of the discrete surround channels, and every channel gets the full dynamic range treatment. There is plenty to keep your subwoofer happy as well. Of particular note on the music front is the song "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" performed a couple times by Marilyn Manson. I won't claim to be a huge Manson fan but this song in this movie is very appropriate. He gives it a scary, raw feeling the original performers could not have done. And yes, I'm more than old enough to remember it was The Eurythmics.
Warner has given quite a package of extras without sacrificing picture or sound quality as well. The director's commentary was both informative and sometimes humorous, with plenty of behind the scenes information. I'm not sure I bought that his claim that Rush's looking so much like Vincent Price was a coincidence, but only he knows for sure. A short tribute feature on William Castle who directed and produced the 1959 version was very nice as well. A series of very short featurettes on various special effects was largely redundant if you've heard the commentary, but nice if you don't have time for the feature length information. A short little acid trip of images called "The Chamber" I'll leave for you to experience yourself. Three deleted scenes follow that, two of which expanded on the story somewhat and changed the ending. Next up is "Two Houses," a 20-minute feature comparing the two versions of the film. I had fun with it as well. A montage from Malone's Creature, trailers for both versions of the movie are next, and if you have a DVD-ROM drive there are extensive extras for you on your computer as well, including more trailers, essays, and a trivia game, along with the ability to participate in web events. I'm pretty impressed with all the extras Warner has provided.
I have to say as well that the menus on this disc are among the best I've seen. The shadow effects used in the menus are even better than the ones in the film!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The gravy train for the movie review stops here. For all the strengths and good parts of the film there are so many weaknesses. First off, Malone is determined to get things moving fast and keeping that pace, and sacrifices early exposition necessary to really care about or even know the characters. The exposition scenes that are in the film are often awkward and obvious. Malone should have learned from great horror films like The Exorcist and The Sixth Sense that it is okay to let your characters breathe and live first so that the viewer has an emotional stake in them afterwards.
Next I have to address the gaping holes in the plot—huge, gaping chasms of missing information. I'm still trying to figure out how people walking together and determined to stick together get separated in a second. The commentary gives a rather lame explanation that the house is doing it, but nothing in the film suggests any reason at all. Just instantly the characters are alone, and if the story wishes, find each other again several minutes later. This type of thing happens several times, and other such gaps occur readily throughout the picture.
By far the worst offender though requires a spoiler to explain it. So if you want to be spoiler free then skip on but I have to say this. The guest list, which Price changed to meet his own whims, is changed again by the ghosts. They accomplish this feat by going online far away from the house to hack into his laptop. Mein Gott, the ghosts are net savvy and are roaming the internet! Come to think of it, maybe this isn't so ludicrous as I first thought. This might explain some things. Now I think I understand why unsolicited emails with the subject "Hot Teen Action" hits my mailbox. Before these ghosts got on the net, nobody ever put those three words together. I'll bet they are the ones who send all that spam that now makes everyone totally disregard messages saying "Urgent! This is important! Read this!" too. One of these days I'm going to just hit delete and miss out on a real lottery win or something and it's the damn ghost's fault. Seriously though, I can't think of a more lame and contrived plot device. When I hit that scene I almost stopped watching the film to start a scathing review right there. It gets better, so keep watching anyway.
I have one complaint about the disc. Under "Cast and Crew" only William Malone gets any information. The cast gets zip. That is either laziness or utter ego for a director who doesn't have a lot of work to justify it.
All told, what we have here is a remake of a B horror flick into a more modern B horror flick. With some effort, and a different writer and perhaps director, it could have been much better. It's still pretty good as B horror flicks go, and I admit to having a weakness for them. So if you too like B-grade horror movies, give this one a whirl. Otherwise wait for next Halloween, and if something a year newer or better hasn't come along, rent it then. I suppose I must make the comparison to The Haunting, the other horror remake from last year. Of the two I like this one better.
Warner is commended for a great transfer, soundtrack, and extra package, and is asked to give the same treatment to movies more deserving. House on Haunted Hill is acquitted for its high points but barely so considering its low ones.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary Track
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