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House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/17/05 15:09:03

"One of the great underrated horror flicks of the last decade. Yes, really."
5 stars (Awesome)

I’m usually averse to remakes, especially if the remake is of a particular favorite. And yet the 1999 version of “House On Haunted Hill,” a retooling of one such particular favorite, is in its own right one of my very favorite horror flicks. Go figure.

“Haunted Hill” updates the 1958 B movie classic of the same name, starring Vincent Price and directed by that master of promotional gimmicks, William Castle, who amped up ticket sales thanks to a lively skeleton-in-the-theater process called “Emergo.” Screenwriter Dick Beebe and director William Malone, both vets of HBO’s retro-cool “Tales From the Crypt” series, work hard to make their update a loving tribute to both men. That tribute comes mainly in the form of Steven Price, the new movie’s main character who comes off as a mix between Castle, Price, and Price’s “Haunted Hill” character. (Adding to this odd mix, Geoffrey Rush, who plays Price, says he modeled his character after none other than filmmaker John Waters.) The Price character is part master showman, part gentleman, part conniver. He’s a guy that’s out to trick you and is having a blast doing it.

His character is best defined by his opening scene, where we see him at one of his amusement parks, giving a guided tour of his latest rollercoaster. He revels in seeing the reactions of his guests (cameos by Lisa Loeb and James Marsters) as the ride... well, that would be giving away the first of the movie’s many “gotchas.” So I’ll just say this: watch for Rush’s delicious delivery during his explanation of what makes the ride unique. (“Ever seen one that starts at the top? Twenty stories worth of top?”) That initial scene is an analogy of sorts for the movie itself. You’re about to take a wild ride, the filmmakers are telling us. It will be scary, and fun, and you may very well piss your pants and lose your glasses, but dammit, you’ll have a ball all the while.

On to the main story, which only very (very, very) loosely follows the original film. Price’s wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen) is throwing another of her spooky theme parties, and she’s rented out an old insane asylum as the venue. Legend has it the place is haunted with the ghosts of the creepy doctor and his unfortunate patients who all died during a riot years ago. Price, ever the showman, adds another kick: survive the night, and walk away with a certified check for one million dollars.

But there’s another catch. Neither Price nor his wife recognize the guests. Or if they do, they’re not owning up. And that’s where the movie starts to play its games. Toying with a knowledge of the original film (although you don’t have to have seen that one to enjoy this one), the script takes its sweet time in telling us if the house is really haunted, or if all the creepiness is all the doings of Price, who’s famous for his elaborate party pranks. Or maybe it’s Evelyn, pulling some pranks on her own?

I’m not telling. One of the joys of this remake is that it plays with the fans of the original, applauding you for getting the in-jokes and knowing how the plot will turn out, and then spanking you for daring to think you know how the plot will turn out.

I’ve heard from several folks who found the ending a bit disappointing, not living up to the promise of all those gotchas. I admit that the finale causes the movie to stumble a bit, and I was a bit put off when I first saw it, but over time, I’ve gotten to like the ending. It’s how this particular movie should have ended (and I’ll leave it at that).

Even if you find the ending a total bust, there’s still enough here to make up for it. The cast, which also includes Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, Bridgette Wilson, and Peter Gallagher, knows just what they’re doing. Kattan adds laughs without doing his usual over-the-top bit. Larter, Diggs, and Wilson play up the scares. Gallagher goes for both and comes off winningly. (It’s perhaps my favorite performance of his.)

But the grand prize goes to Rush. You might think the Oscar winner to be slumming, showing up in a horror flick like this. But watch him work, and you’ll see a guy who, just like his character, is enjoying every minute of it. He’s cartoony without being annoyingly so, chewing up the scenery without eating too much, so to speak. Here’s a guy who gets what the movie was hoping to do, and by adding in his own talents, he improves on a nifty idea. Without Rush, this remake would’ve been a decent attempt. With him, it becomes a dynamite chiller thriller spook show, screams and giggles all the way.

It’s this wink-while-we-scare-you attitude that makes the whole movie crackle. Malone creates some of the creepiest imagery and unsettling moods to come around in some time (that mad doctor ghost dude still gives me the willies). The film deftly combines devilish humor with frights of all varieties: the startling, jump-out-of-your-seat kind of scare, the unsettling-images-that-get-under-your-skin kind of scare, the uneasy-mood-creates-nervous-tension kind of scare. And yet, even with all of this never letting up, he’s careful to keep a sense of fun throughout. Yes, this movie scared the crap out of me (something very few movies do), but a steady influx of humor kept everything at the right balance.

I’ve seen “Haunted Hill” countless times now, and I’ve had fun every time. The laughs are funny, the scares are creepy, and the balance between the two is spot on. It’s a great movie experience for anyone who likes horror films, a wonderful ride that leaves me breathless with each viewing. William Castle would be proud.

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