Starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Peter Gallagher
Directed by William Malone
Distributed by Scream Factory
There was a sense of promise that came about when mega-producer Joel Silver and director Robert Zemeckis, along with producer Gilbert Adler, formed Dark Castle Entertainment. The production company planned to focus on remakes of William Castle pictures – this in a time before “remake” was such a vilified term. Let’s also not forget that many of Castle’s pictures were famous more for their showmanship and gimmicks than their quality and content… with the exception of the first film Dark Castle chose to remake, House on Haunted Hill (1959). A classic of both the haunted house subgenre and lead actor Vincent Price, this new take on an old story added a few interesting new elements to the tale, though by the end the story pretty much fizzles out. I remember having a blast with this movie and really enjoying it, but my last viewing was probably 15 years ago. Time hasn’t been too kind, and while the first act is still plenty of fun it’s all downhill from there.
1931. A patient uprising at Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane leaves Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) and his staff brutally murdered, while a fire starts within and eventually engulfs the massive building and everyone inside. Cut to present day, where Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) is being interviewed by a local news team about his latest endeavor, a gimmick-based rollercoaster. Price is known for his showmanship and bravado. The only person who doesn’t buy his bullshit is Evelyn (Famke Janssen), his loveless wife. Evelyn has instructed Stephen to put together a guest list for her upcoming birthday party, to be held in the remains of the Vannacutt Institute. Price drafts up a list… but then his computer mysteriously erases it and replaces the names with five seemingly random selections.
Later, those same five guests arrive at the institute and meet both Stephen and Evelyn, though everyone is still unsure why they were chosen to attend. Price pays this little mind and lays out the ground rules for the night’s festivities: anyone who can survive an entire night in the mansion leaves $1 million richer. Any who leave forfeit their check and it, too, goes to the winner(s). Not long after Price gives his speech the house goes on lock-down, sealing all the windows and doors with steel plates. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, Price has strategically rigged the house to scare the wits out of anyone who explores it. He isn’t going to make surviving till morning easy. Unbeknownst to Price, however, is the fact the ghosts of Vannacutt Institute are still in residence and their bloodlust has not been sated since that fateful night in 1931.
The setup here is great, just as it was in the original. Director William Malone wisely turned Stephen Price into an amalgamation of Vincent Price (just check out that stache) and William Castle, using the former’s appearance and the latter’s flair for theatrics. This allows the film to have plenty of fun – which it does. The opening with Price being interviewed is a highlight, and might even be the best scene in the picture. I still enjoy the Mouseketeer roll call of who’s who once everyone lands in the mansion, though the events get shaky from there because the movie just wastes some key setups, like the ghost of Dr. Vannacutt, the ghost inhabiting the mansion, why these specific people were chosen, etc. Characters take us around the mansion to explore creepy chambers and burned-out rooms, but it’s all in an effort to elicit a few extra scares. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the ending should have brought about a sense of resolution and not just one of “oh, cool, so they managed to get away…”
Speaking of “they”, I had forgotten this movie plays like a who’s who of whose career didn’t make it out of the ‘90s. With the exception of Janssen and Rush, I can’t recall seeing a single one of these faces past the late ‘90s; maybe Ali Larter. That isn’t to say these actors aren’t good in their roles. Taye Diggs is a great straight man, coming at every problem with a level head and a sense of calm. Bridgette Wilson excels at playing women who are just annoying enough that once they get some sort of comeuppance you think “yea, that’s about right”. Peter Gallagher does smarmy douchebag so well it’s almost too natural. And then there’s Chris Kattan. Where did that guy go? He’s probably miscast here but his energy is infectious enough and he doesn’t overstay his welcome.
The best casting in the film, outside of Rush, who completely carries the picture every step of the way, is Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Vannacutt. Unfortunately, his role is small and he doesn’t do much past the opening, but he apparently returns for Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007) which I have not seen but reviews seem to be extremely unfavorable. Dark Castle pumped out a couple more decent remakes – Thirteen Ghosts (2001) and House of Wax (2005) – but nothing that could be considered an outright classic or hit. The company has moved away from horror in the past decade, focusing on action and drama.
Horror films from the ‘90s tend to look a bit flat and soft, but the 1.85:1 1080p image is ultra clean and stunningly detailed. The production design of the mansion is richly layered, with many subtleties and ornate patterns. This HD image allows for every minute detail to be seen with strong clarity. Outside of a few soft shots, the picture is sharp, offering up lifelike qualities in the image. Colors are rich and solid contrast keeps blacks looking inky and deep.
Sound design is crucial to haunted house films and the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack capably delivers an immersive experience. The beginning of the picture features minimal use of rear channels, with dialogue and most effects directed to the front. Once the house begins to come alive, so do the corners of the room, creaking with decayed floors and old doors, oohing with ghostly emanations, and exploding when the moment strikes. Bass response is average, with some decent rumbling. Subtitles are available in English.
The disc includes a legacy audio commentary with director William Malone.
New features on this Scream Factory disc include Interview with Director William Malone, Interview with Composer Don Davis, and Interview with Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Skotak.
A trio of still galleries is included: Concept Art and Storyboard Gallery, Behind-the-Scenes Visual FX Gallery, and Movie Stills and Poster Gallery.
A Tale of Two Houses and Behind the Visual FX are both vintage featurettes that have been carried over from the DVD.
A reel of deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and two TV spots are also included.
- NEW 2K scan from the original film elements
- NEW interview with director William Malone
- NEW interview with composer Don Davis
- NEW Interview with visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak
- Never-Before-Seen storyboards, concept art and behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of visual effects producer Paul Taglianetti
- Audio Commentary with director William Malone
- A Tale of Two Houses – vintage featurette
- Behind the Visual FX – vintage featurette
- Deleted Scenes
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Movie Stills and Poster Gallery
Not as fun as I remembered it, House on Haunted Hill has a great first act and a handful of decent moments making it worth a watch, especially if you were weaned on ‘90s horror. The second act-lag leads to a crumbling finale, with some badly dated CGI, but the film’s tongue stays planted in its cheek firmly enough to mostly work.
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