The House on Haunted Hill
Screenplay : Dick Beebe and William Malone (based on an original by Robb White)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Geoffrey Rush (Steven Price), Famke Janssen (Evelyn Price), Taye Diggs (Eddie), Ali Larter (Sara Wolfe), Bridgette Wilson (Melissa Marr), Peter Gallagher (Dr. Blackburn), Chris Kattan (Watson Pritchett)
When infamous horror director/producer William Castle made schlock-shock movies like 1958's "The House on Haunted Hill," there was a certain charm to the effort that overrode the fundamental tastelessness of most of his work. Castle was a born showman (he once said that he modeled his career on P.T. Barnum), a talented promoter who was constantly coming up with new and devious ways to thrill and excite his audiences. Quality and taste were never of much concern; he simply wanted a reaction. And, most of the time, he got it.
Unfortunately, thinking about Castle's funny gimmicks and outlandish showmanship makes the new 1999 version of "The House on Haunted Hill" look all the more pathetic. Bulked up with talented actors (Geoffrey Rush, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher) and plenty of gory prosthetics and computer-enhanced special effects, the new version fails even at the William Castle level: it doesn't get a notable reaction.
The story involves a flamboyant amusement park entrepreneur named Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush in a role originally played by Vincent Price) who offers four strangers $1 million apiece if they can survive a night in the titular house, which used to be home to the Vanacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. (It might be pedantic to point out, but the house in this movie isn't even a house. Its vertical, modernist architecture makes it look like something that might have been in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis").
In 1931, the inmates in the Vanacutt Psychiatric Institute revolted against Dr. Vanacutt, who manifested his own perverse insanity by performing pointless operations on his patients without any anesthetic. The movie's opening sequence shows in gory detail how the inmates break free, run loose through the asylum, raping nurses, stabbing orderlies, and strapping Dr. Vanacutt to his gurney and giving him a taste of his own anesthesia-free medicine.
Fast-forward 68 years, and we are introduced to Steven Price, a man whose idea of ingenious entertainment is building a roller coaster that tricks the riders into believing the rails have come undone and they are about to die. (Despite the movie's general lack of energy and originality, these early scenes with Price are darkly humorous, and they play as interesting commentary on what it takes to scare people in the desensitized nineties.)
Price is married to the duplicitous Evelyn (Famke Janssen), and their antagonistic relationship borders on murder fantasy for both. In celebration of Evenlyn's birthday, Price invites four strangers (Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Ali Larter, and Melissa Marr) to spend a night in the creepy old asylum. Along for the ride is the unwilling Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan of "Saturday Night Live"), the asylum's nervous inheritor whose sole purpose in the movie is to inform everyone of the asylum's evil nature.
The majority of "The House on Haunted Hill" focuses on the various visitors trying to survive the asylum's haunted presence. Apparently, Dr. Vanacutt's ghost is alive and kicking and able to dismember at will. Screenwriters Dick Beebe and William Malone (who also directed) try to complicate this scenario by putting various characters under suspicion that he or she is behind the bloody hijinks, but it doesn't improve the movie's tension. It is obvious from the first moment that the asylum is haunted, and whatever games the people are playing will matter little in the end.
The movie has a handful of engaging moments, but they are few and far between. Certain sequences have a dizzying, hallucinogenic quality, such as an over-the-top scene when Price is locked in a sensory-overload chamber designed to freak schizophrenics back into normality. The set decoration by Lauri Gaffin is appropriately creep-inducing, although the overall design is a bit schizophrenic itself: part of the asylum looks like a luxury hotel while others parts are dank and infested like a wet basement. With his Vincent Price moustache (or is its John Waters?), Rush hams it up nicely in his role, although after having seen him in "Shine" (1996), you can't help but wince at the fact that he accepted a role of this nature.
Director William Malone, who made a few forgettable horror films in the early 1980s and a few episodes of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt," has an in-your-face style that leaves little to the imagination. The movie is never particularly scary, but some sequences are certainly disturbing (especially the graphic opening segment involving the inmates' revolt). He has a sense of humor, though, and watching the murderous Rush and Janssen quarrel and quip at each other is enjoyable in and of itself.
But, the movie as a whole never really justifies its existence. If you want good, schlock horror without a silly, computer-generated ghost that looks like a raging dust cloud, go rent a William Castle original.
©1999 James Kendrick