House On Haunted Hill (1999), or Flashes Of Ingenuity, Long Stretches Of Normal

23 08 2009

Remakes are a dime a dozen nowadays, and they are pretty banal on the whole, to say the least. On a good day, if you watch twenty remakes, odds are that three of them will be good. I usually don’t put too much faith in them, but every now and then they can surprise you. Today’s feature actually surprised me quite a bit. House on Haunted Hill was a 1999 remake of the exploitative and gimmicky 1959 William Castle horror movie of the same name. It has a decent cast, a not-bad script, a surprisingly good aesthetic style, and scares that hit their mark. If you look at the advertising, the box, and the extremely 90s attitude that pervades every pore of this movie, you’ll likely dismiss it as a trite cash-in on the Thir13en Ghosts popularity bandwagon, but it’s got a lot more potential than its looks would reveal.

It’s all set in an abandoned mental institution. A wealthy roller coaster tycoon named Steven Price and his cuckold wife have set up a wild, extravagant, and dangerous Halloween party set up in a burned-out old asylum where the doctors experimented on the patients before it caught on fire. It’s a party that challenges the guests to stay alive through the night. Whoever makes it out alive wins $1 million, and gets to keep the loot of whoever doesn’t make it out. The party list was made up of five strangers, and when they arrive, they have no idea what they’re in for. Because while the “surviving the night” part of it was originally intended to be a joke, the guests soon come to realize that things are not always as they seem. People aren’t who they say they are, there is an ridiculous amount of animosity between Mr. and Mrs. Price that borders on homicidal, and the asylum itself seems to have a mind of its own, almost as if the victims of the fire cannot rest. With all of these things standing in their way, these strangers might actually have to worry about surviving the night after all…

House on Haunted Hill isn’t perfect, but it works. I was refreshed by its vitality and its willingness to scare. It doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on effects, so it focuses on the basics, namely keeping the tension ratcheted up tight. There are a lot of moments in this film where you don’t know who to trust. Even the movie seems suspect at times; you’re constantly wondering what’s going on, and whether or not there even IS a supernatural presence. Steven Price is a special effects guy, and an expert at scaring people, so you have to wonder if all that stuff about ghosts and vengeful lunatics is just a myth. Even if it has you guessing for just a moment, it becomes a pretty long, confusing¬† moment while you’re in it.

The effects, while not terribly shiny or impressive, are effective nonetheless. There are ghosts, and, whether real or imagined, are pretty neat. Their main strength is that they tease an awful lot. All the horror and terror is confined to one or two seconds of intense on-screen WTF-ness during the scary scenes. I’m also impressed with the frightening style Dark Castle production showed in the ghosts. They are creepy! And they do that strange unnatural movement thing where it seems like they cut out frames people walking so they seem to disappear and reappear closer and closer to someone. Cheap, effective stuff like that is what terrifies people, not a $40 million ghost made entirely from CG effects.

The cast is damn good for a movie like this. Future superstars Ali Larter and Famke Janssen sizzle, although they’re not too worried about raising the bar for emotional credibility. Current superstar Geoffrey Rush plays the enigmatic Steven Price, and he gives the role 110%. I was really very impressed at how much he gave to the movie, considering how low-brow it is. But I think it’s a good role for him, all things considered, so his mad genius goes far towards establishing Price as a weirdo. Taye Diggs is another party guest, but he can hardly be counted due to his incredibly cliched role. He’s the typical heroic protagonist who’s not allowed to laugh or cut up unless it’s with the heroine. He didn’t add a damn thing except as a tool to move the plot forward. And Chris Kattan is also in here, but the only reason I wanted to talk about Chris Kattan is because I wanted to be the first person in 8 years to type the name Chris Kattan.¬† And now that I have, I’m finished talking about him.

So, go watch this movie. It’s a cheap, cheesy horror movie that’s just what the doctor ordered. It has a little of this and a little of that, and it’s not exactly what you think. It has its moments of extreme boneheadedness and eye-rolling shame, but it has a lot going for it that I would not have surmised going into it. It has weird-moving ghosts, murder and intrigue, and THE Chris Kattan. What more do you need? I give House on Haunted Hill 6 1/2 Mango-licious remakes out of 10.

Tomorrow I guess I’m watching Interview With The Vampire, as per my requests! Until then!

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