It’s not just that Stephen has rigged up the house with all kinds of spooky contraptions so the guests have to work for their million, there are also quite real, and very nasty, ghosts to cope with, as well as a little murder conspiracy, and…the Darkness.
When it comes to remaking films, going for something like the great William Castle’s original House on Haunted Hill makes a lot of sense: it’s a well loved film to some – like me – but it’s not well-loved for being particularly artful, nor deep, nor complex, nor important to the development of genres or lives. Rather, it’s loved as an extremely fun example of the movie as carnival ride, made out of funny and sharp dialogue, some hokey yet great effects, Vincent Price, and Castle’s very distinctive impresario personality and all that it brought. Apart from Price, these are things a film in the late 90s could provide.
And while Geoffrey Rush certainly is no Vincent, his performance, which is about in equal parts a homage to Price and one to William Castle himself, is pretty damn fun. Particularly so in Rush’s scenes with a Janssen who clearly also gets the joke and enjoys herself.
I’m fond of director William Malone’s decision to set the film’s first half hour or so mainly up as an extended Castle homage, be it through the very Castle-like prominent billing of people like James Marsters and Jeffrey Combs who barely have cameos, or through the sheer insistence of Rush’s character on the sort of gimmickry and overcooked showmanship Castle loved so well.
Once that part of the film is over, things settle down to a competent horror romp through some very cool looking sets - mechanical gothic by way of art deco style in design –, hokey yet fun scares, and featuring a bit too much late 90s shock rock music video editing. The whole affair is scandalously lacking even a single moment of depth but fully delivers on all promises of cheap thrills. As a little extra, this House on Haunted Hill does also belong to the tiny minority of horror films whose shared main sympathetic character is a black man who even survives the movie.