31 Days to Scare ~ House on Haunted Hill (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An amusement park mogul offers a group of diverse people $1,000,000 to spend the night in a haunted house with a horrifying past.
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combs, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters
Director: William Malone
Rated: R
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: After getting HBO’s popular series Tales from The Crypt up and running, Hollywood veterans Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adler formed Dark Castle Entertainment in 1998, intending to put a modern spin on the films of legendary filmmaker William Castle. Known for his gimmicks that coincided with the release of each picture, Castle became infamous for spending more creative energy around his promotional shenanigans than he did on ensuring a quality movie. In theaters showing 1959’s The Tingler, seats were wired to buzz when the titular creature “escaped” into a cinema. The “fright break” in 1961’s Homicidal gave audiences time to leave the theater if they were too scared to watch the finale. And in 1965’s I Saw What You Did, Castle installed seat belts in the back row of theaters to prevent audiences from being shocked out of their seats in terror.

First on Dark Castle’s agenda was to give 1959’s House on Haunted Hill another look. Starring Vincent Price, the original is classic Castle and follows your typical spooky old dark house formula. What elevates it is Castle’s commitment to the material and letting it be as campy fun as it wants to be. Price was already a pro at working this angle, so the two are a perfect match for one another. The screenplay was curiously timeless, though, lending itself easily to a modern adaptation, and you can see what would have attracted Dark Castle’s head honchos to tackle this title first. 

A prologue in 1931 documents the tragedy at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, where the patients broke free and ran amok, starting a fire that killed everyone inside. Years later, smarmy amusement park king Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief) throws his wife a birthday bash at the same location, though it is said to be haunted by the spirits of the patients and the staff members murdered that night. However, this is what demanding wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen, The Vault) wants. Steven is more than happy to give it to her, especially considering he’s hoping tragedy will befall this wealthy heir to a fortune that would be his if she dies. 

Of course, Evelyn knows Steven is up to no good and is just as determined to bump him off. Though the guest list was chosen by her and rewritten by Steven, the actual guests that show up were invited by…someone else. A film producer, a sports star, a TV presenter, a doctor, and the building’s current owner wind up locked in the house for the night along with the bickering couple by an unseen force that doesn’t want them to leave. Price has already set the stakes high by offering $1,000,000 to anyone who can spend the night there, but when they can’t go, they must find a way out before vengeful ghosts from the past make the house on haunted hill their permanent residence.

Directed by William Malone (a relative unknown with only a few TV and low-budget feature credits) from an adapted script by Dick Beebe, the new House on Haunted Hill doesn’t get off as easy as its predecessor in the timelessness department. This is squarely a movie made in the late ’90s and set in the late ’90s. Everything from the clothes to the dialogue to the music to Rick Bota’s askew cinematography is like stepping back into a weird time machine that was off by a few years. While fun, if filtered through a narrow reflection standpoint that can excuse some flabbergasting excess, the movie is mainly a mess with multiple departments working in discord.

If you want to see what the movie should have had more of, it’s in the performances of Rush and Janssen. Both actors are obnoxious, crashing and thrashing through the film with melodrama…but it works far better than what someone like Chris Kattan does as the property’s landlord. Everything Kattan does is a nuisance to the film’s success, and that he outlives most of the cast is a darn shame. They’d go on to do better work, but Taye Diggs (Baggage Claim) and Ali Larter (Final Destination) are miscast as our hero and heroine, never drumming up enough goodwill to make you want to root for them. If anything, I wanted more Bridgette Wilson (I Know What You Did Last Summer) …but don’t we all?

When we get to House on Haunted Hill’s terrifically terrible ending, with some of the ugliest special effects you’ll see this side of a high school computer lab project; the thrills have gone from this remake. While it creates a decent mood early on and earns points for tackling such a big jewel in the Castle Crown, Dark Castle’s first horse out of the gate barely makes it to the finish line. They’d try another Castle film two years later with THIR13EN Ghosts, but that was even worse than this. Once they freed themselves from their mission statement, the production company began to find some stability. However, it would take until 2003’s Gothika and 2005’s House of Wax for any significant box office headway. For a primer into Dark Castle’s legacy or if you are feeling nostalgic for late ’90s trends, check into the House on Haunted Hill.

Where to watch House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Leave a Reply