In 1999 Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis teamed up to form Dark Castle Entertainment a production company designed to pay homage to the works of legendary filmmaker William Castle and their first project was a remake of the 1960 classic House on Haunted Hill, yet after just two remakes they stopped and went on to make original material, but the two adaptations we did get offered bigger budgets and greater visual effects than Castle could ever have dreamed of, but does that make them better?
This remake of House on Haunted Hill launches out of the gate with an elaborate backstory that will set up the horror that is to follow, no longer is the “House on Haunted Hill” simply a “Murder House” but now in the opening sequence, we learn that back in the early 30s a mad doctor by the name of Dr. Richard B. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) used inmates at his asylum for sadistic experiments and when these poor souls eventually rebelled, killing the staff and setting fire to the place, which gives us a dark history to the house. Now, this change has always kind of bothered me as I can’t really see calling a massive psychiatric institute a house, it’s an impressive monolith of a building that juts out of the cliff like the prow of a great ship surging through the waves, but it’s not what one would really consider a house.
We then jump to the present day where we are introduced to the character analogs from the original; we have Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush), a rich amusement park mogul whose rides are designed to terrify the occupant pay – such as pretending to break mid-run – and next, we have his cold-hearted wife Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen) who after seeing a program on the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute decides that would be the perfect venue for her birthday party because, why not? We then get a bit of silliness where some mysterious force hacks Price’s computer and changes the guest list because everyone knows that ancient evil is very computer savvy. The five guests arrive for the party in a funeral procession – a nod to the original film – and the partiers consist of Sara Wolfe (Ali Larter), a film production assistant impersonating her boss so as to attend this party, then we have baseball player Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), former television personality Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) and Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), a physician who will later be revealed as to be having an affair with Evelyn.
The place has been rented from the building’s owner, Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), who is convinced that a great evil he calls “The Darkness” resides within this house, and as in the original film Price has offered a $1 million dollars to each guest who remains in the house until morning. The only other residual element from the 1960 original is the fact that Evelyn is in cahoots with the doctor in murdering her husband, with the two faking her death – though in this film via electric shock treatment opposed to hanging – and once again guns are provided as party favours which Evelyn hopes will end up being used against her loving husband. That pretty much ends any similarity this remake has to William Castle’s film as it’s more interested in gore and endless shots of people walking up and down dank and dark corridors than it does with mystery and murder.
• The rollercoaster gag where the car ahead of you derails and flies off into space would not work as part of a park attraction because it would be impossible to reset the ride on any decent timetable.
• The ghosts hacking Price’s computer to change the guest list is silly enough but then you have the fact that their plan also hinges on Evelyn choosing to hold her party on Haunted Hill simply because she saw it on television. Did the ghosts also produce the Peter Graves program she was watching?
• How did Watson Pritchett inherit Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute? We are told his grandfather built the place but an architect or builder wouldn’t own the building, it would either be owned by the state or if it was a private institution it’d belong to Dr. Richard B. Vannacutt.
• When Melissa explores the bowels of the hospital she discovers that while looking through her camcorder she can see the ghosts of the past, a possible nod to the “Ghost Viewers” from William Castle’s 13 Ghosts which was also the next film that Dark Castle Entertainment would adapt.
• Sara shoots Price but he survives because he’s wearing a bulletproof vest with hidden blood bags and this raises the question “Why is he wearing one if the guns he provided for the party had been loaded with blanks?” Evelyn and Blackburn would have been the ones responsible for the switch in ammunition so what plan did Price have that required his faked death?
• Geoffrey Rush’s character is named Stephen Price in a nod to actor Vincent Price from the original film but he didn’t model his look after the horror icon but instead that off director Jon Waters, of course, dress Geoffrey Rush up as Jon Waters and you get Vincent Price.
The most disappointing aspect is the horror elements themselves, as director William Malone and company fail to provide fans with anything remotely scary, we get nothing but brief glimpses of funhouse exhibits and the occasionally creepy moment with Jeffrey Combs – who I must point out is one of the film’s saving graces – now, to be fair the original wasn’t all that scary, as it was more in the vein of dark camp than actual horror, but that film was about a pair of villains gaslighting a young woman into murdering a jealous spouse, there was no actual supernatural element, while in this film they’re definitely is supposed to be actual ghosts. In fact, the remake jumps in with both feet when it comes to the supernatural threat being real, unfortunately, what the filmmakers delivered was less than engaging and also not all that scary. The worst offence is “The Darkness” itself for when it finally shows up during the final act it’s just a messy optical effect that was better in theory than in practice.
What is odd here is that Geoffrey Rush, Famke Jansen and Peter Gallagher all seem to be relishing in their roles, and all three give performances that are simply bursting with camp and dark humour, sadly, the rest of the cast look as if they’d wandered in from a different movie and are fairly forgettable. It’s as if William Malone and screenwriter Dick Beebe took some elements from the William Castle film and then crammed it into a different horror movie, one about a haunted asylum that is seeking revenge on the ancestors of those who wronged it. Oh, did I not mention that the guests were descendants of the five employees who survived the fire at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute back in 1931? Don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter and has very little bearing on the plot. With the deadpan black humour of the original being overshadowed by gore and cheap visual effects, this remake is a hard one to recommend.
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Movie Rank - 6/10
This mish-mash of the old and the new fails to ring the nostalgia bell while also dropping the ball in delivering a solid horror movie.