Judge David Johnson thinks his house is haunted unless toilets typically bleed.
Would it kill someone to use a definite article once in a movie title?
The follow-up to the moderately scary remake House on Haunted Hill hits hi-def with a new set of victims to terrorize and some more weird-looking ghosts that move fast down hallways and frown. Also, this is one of the most unique and compelling optical disc treatments I've ever seen.
Facts of the Case
I can't remember all the details from the predecessor, but apparently one of the survivors has a sister named Ariel (Amanda Righetti), a high-powered magazine editor and someone who's skeptical of her sister's ravings. Meanwhile, a famed researcher and his nubile assistant (Cerina Vincent, Cabin Fever) are closing on a long-lost Medieval demon idol that supposedly has the power to turn normally decent folks all evil and such.
When a rogue grad student (!) named Desmond (Erik Palladino, U-571) shows up at Ariel's house with a gaggle of mercenaries, intent on finding the idol. Ariel and her boy-toy Paul (Tom Riley) find themselves marched to the notorious "House on Haunted Hill," to track down the idol and, if they're lucky, make it through the night without getting decapitated or drawn or quartered or bludgeoned by a refrigerator.
As a film, Return to House on Haunted Hill is a moderately successful scare tactic, slick-looking, gore-drenched, jump-scene-littered hackfest that is a tiny bit better than what came before it, another slick-looking, gore-drenched, jump-scene-littered hackfest.
The kills are plentiful, inventive and quite messy. And the murderous ghosts are just as wild and woolly as they were in the first film, running around in that bizarre stop-motion kind of transit. While the familiarity preserves the franchise's style, it did however take away from the actual fright generated from the mayhem. "Look, another ghost with a weird moving mouth!" Cool to look at, but not necessarily goosebump-inducing. The plot and writing are at direct-to-video level caliber. There's comic relief but it's not very funny, the demon-idol thing is little more than a plot device set up to establish more sequels and there aren't any surprises as to who gets offed. On the plus side, Righetti is a spitfire of a heroine and Palladino delivers in the frat-boy style of arch-nemesing. Jeffrey Combs as the primary heavy, Dr. Vannacutt doesn't do much besides sneer.
So, it's a serviceable horror film, entertaining and mounted with gusto, but no molds are broken in the storytelling department. However…there's another option to watch the film and it's a mold-obliterator. The "Play Your Way" feature gives you control over key scenes in the story. As you watch, the movie will pause before a character makes a choice and you're presented with two options. Your decision affects the way the rest of the narrative unspools. Essentially, it's a digital "Choose Your Own Adventure" and it's really, really, really cool. Make this choice and suddenly everyone dies in a shootout and the film ends. Make that choice and you bring about a lesbian threesome and a totally different ending. Make this choice and this guy dies differently than he did in the original cut. The disc information proclaims there are 96 different possibilities, and that's technically true, but some choices a) don't impact the story and b) are the same ones from the original cut. Regardless, it's a great feature, a lot of fun and, perhaps, a sign of things to come for the next generation of DVD? At the very least it can give under-the-radar releases like this staying power.
I suppose there is a philosophical discussion to be had about the artistic merits of such an innovation. Does giving the viewer control over the director's vision affect the film's standing as art? I think it still qualifies, but then again, I'd characterize "Burger Time" as art. It's a worthwhile discussion to have, and while you have it, I'll just stay here, playing with my remote and seeing if there's a different way to off this guy over here.
Though overshadowed by this cutting-edge feature, there are some other supplements to be founds, including a series of "confessionals," which feature cast members as their characters talk about their thoughts of the haunted house. It keeps the meta-narrative nature of the release going, but doesn't offer much in the way of behind-the-scenes goodness. Additional scenes, a music video and a short featurette called "The Search for an Idol" flesh out the rather meager offering. But this disc is getting a 95 in extras no problem.
Audio and visually, things look nice. Picture quality (2.40:1, 1080p) is strong and really pops when scenes shift to brighter, lighter settings. Most of the action takes place in the bowels of the house, so the colors are dark and musty—in a good way, though as details hold up nicely. When the blood spills, the blaring red is a nice contrast. For sound, you get a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 that's active, particularly when the ghosts run at you from all angles. The not-bad soundtrack gets a nice workout as well. A clean presentation overall.
The "choose your own movie" feature is super-nifty and is easily the most compelling aspect of the release (though the film's not terrible in its own right).
Not guilty. This is the kind of creative thinking that will sell high-def to the masses.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Play Your Way"
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