Blu-ray Review: House on Haunted Hill [Collector's Edition] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 17th, 2019  

House on Haunted Hill

Studio: Scream Factory

Dec 17, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The original House on Haunted Hill was created on a budget of roughly $200,000 in 1959 by B-Movie King William Castle and eclectic adventure novelist Robb White (with whom Castle would create five features). While often championed for its hefty, yet evenly distributed helpings of camp and 50s horror, the true legacy of the film is its effect on Alfred Hitchcock. While the film was quickly becoming one of the most profitable releases of Allied Artists, thanks in part to Castle’s “Emergo” flying skeleton gimmick in theaters, Hitchcock became inspired to direct his own low-budget horror film equipped with Castle-esque advertising tactics, which would manifest the following year as the landmark film Psycho (1960). Though Psycho is often credited with starting the mainstream love of American horror films in the 1960s, that credit sincerely belongs to House on Haunted Hill. However, despite all of the continuous love and support to the present day, Castle never broke out into mainstream filmmaking, and his iconic film fell into the public domain.

In 1999, producers Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler, with filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, would form the production company Dark Castle Entertainment. Initially, the company’s sole purpose was the remaking of classic Castle horror films, though the company would cease this particular avenue after two releases, focusing on non-Castle remakes and original content. Followed up by the remake of Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Dark Castle’s inaugural release would be House on Haunted Hill (1999), directed by William Malone and written by Dick Beebe. Though following much of the original film’s plot and characterization, the remake takes strides to differentiate itself - taking heavy inspirations from H. P. Lovecraft, Nazi medical atrocities, the historical evolution of modern psychology, and most notably Adrian Lyne’s seminal film Jacob's Ladder (1990). I must really stress that last element, because when the “scares” get going, that’s all I could think about; especially since a latter sequence (and constant imagery) in the film is almost carbon-copied from Lyne’s feature with seeming abandon.

In 1931 the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane undergoes a revolt, which leads to the deaths of all staff and patients, burned to death within the institution. Fast-forwarding to 1999, Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen), the wife of amusement park mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush), insists on leasing the abandoned Vannacutt Institute from Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), for her theme-based birthday party. On the night of the party, five unrelated individuals arrive at the house with promises of a $1 million each, if they survive the night: Jennifer Jenzen (Ali Larter), Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), Melissa Margaret Marr (Bridgette Wilson), Dr. Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), and Pritchett. Though the guests were seemingly formally invited by the Prices, neither of them personally know any individual, and are uncertain on how they actually were invited. Despite this, Price continues the night with plans to shock and awe Evelyn and their guests, though the house itself may seem to have surprises for everyone, seeming to physically seal everyone inside.

The chemistry and combined scene-chewing between Rush and Janssen is an absolute delight to experience, channeling the ham and cheese of the original with a revived bombastic snappiness and sardonic humor. The supporting cast is well-chosen, especially Kattan, who relentlessly mirrors the audience’s suppositions of what is happening. The production design is thoroughly creative, amplifying the almost-gothic architecture and eerie nature of the steampunk psychological machines featured in the film. However, that's about where the good of the film ends.

Rick Bota’s jerky nonsensical cinematography is hallmarked by an overabundance of wide angle shots that are shoved so often into the actors’ faces, it is surprising we didn’t shoot up anyone’s nasal cavities. Don Davis’ music (including the appropriated soundtrack, which largely features 90s industrial rock including Marilyn Manson) is constantly banging away on organs and pianos to where any scene with silence is a wonderful reprieve, resultedly far more effective than every other incessantly underscored sequence. Beebe’s screenplay is riddled with easily rectified plot holes and poor character motivations, made all the more obvious due to Malone’s inability to craft meaningful blocking amongst the cast, with individuals non-sensibly moving from room to room, plainly setting up each lukewarm scare with little other consideration to actually tell a story. The worst offender however is the consistently appalling computerized special effects that rarely manages to remotely look believable, let alone scary - it’s all just a mess.

While the original House on Haunted Hill is likewise riddled with several similar contrivances (especially wonky special effects work), this modernized remake lacks the earnestness and charm of the former, completely misunderstanding what makes the original so creepily endearing. Shout! Factory seem to understand the shortcomings vividly at play in this film, as they have loaded up their Blu-ray release of the film with a unique haul of supplemental features. A mess of original storyboards, concept art, behind-the-scenes photos, movie stills, and poster galleries are all buttressed by brand new interviews with Malone, Davis, and Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Skotak. The fresh 2K scan of the film sports a lighthearted, and rather entertaining audio commentary by Malone, which is worth listening to in its own right. Two vintage featurettes, A Tale Of Two Houses and Behind the Visual FX, are also accompanied by a slew of deleted scenes, TV spots and a theatrical trailer.

The extra content of House on Haunted Hill is honestly what keeps this release worth possessing, as the 1999 base film for which they were compiled isn’t all that significant, neither as a campy nostalgic romp nor a legitimate horror experience.



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