Tuesday, November 8, 2016

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen) has decided that the ideal place for throwing her next birthday bash is the titular House on Haunted Hill, a former psychiatric institution once under the charge of a mad man (Jeffrey Combs, as a matter of fact), and claiming a history of death and destruction during and after that particular stint. Despite their marriage having come down to the point where it is a series of entertainingly bitchy dialogue sequences and murder attempts, her husband Stephen Price (Geffrey Rush), a stinking rich carnival barker style rollercoaster tycoon, obliges. Well, sort of, for Stephen invites rather different guests to the party than Evelyn had in mind, because he has decided to run with a gimmick for the evening - survive the night in the house and get a million dollars! – and does consequently go for a rather more desperate clientele than the rich friends of rich people.

The victimsguests who eventually show up at the House – as played by Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher and Bridgette Wilson – aren’t the ones Stephen had invited either, though, for some mysterious force has changed the guest list yet again. It comes as no surprise to the audience when the guests, the Prices and the owner of the place (Chris Kattan) soon find themselves locked in the mansion by a neat mechanical lock-up device, nor that things will get rather dangerous for everyone involved.

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.

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