Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Rated R for horror violence and gore, sexual images and language


The remake of the '50s William Castle/Vincent Price spookshow House on Haunted Hill is, for its first hour or so, a really good movie. Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen make for a great team as a wealthy couple who are only in their marriage for the money, and while the scares weren't creative, they were fun as hell and didn't shy away from the blood. On the other hand, as the film rolled to its conclusion, everything imploded into a mess of a convoluted plot, the disappearance of those two for long stretches in favor of a dull cast of survivors, and some of the worst, most overdone special effects I've ever seen in a theatrically released film. While the original House on Haunted Hill was hardly a perfect movie (having seen it years ago, I don't think it's really stood the test of time), it's still a better and more complete film than this remake.

The plot is largely the same as the original, updated to fit with the times: Steven Price (Rush), a theme park magnate with a flair for self-promotion, is hosting a party for his wife Evelyn (Janssen) at an abandoned insane asylum. Unbeknownst to either Evelyn or Steven, someone -- or something -- has changed the guest list, bringing over four people with seemingly nothing in common: doctor Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), TV hostess Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson), former baseball player Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), and businesswoman Jennifer Jenzen (Ali Larter). Together with Watson Pritchard (Chris Kattan), the owner of the asylum, the five are issued a challenge by Price: anybody who spends a full night in the asylum will be $1 million richer come daybreak. The catch: they have to survive, lest their earnings be divided among the others. Each of them is supplied with a pistol, for "protection". That'll should be easy... except the place is well-reputed to be haunted, having been the scene of a riot by the patients that killed dozens, including the asylum's owner. who had conducted horrifying experiments inside the walls. But how much of it is for real, and how much is Steven or Evelyn's work? After all, the two make no secret of their loathing for one another, and may well be trying to kill each other.

If nothing else, this film has two very good things going for it: Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen as Steven and Evelyn Price, the new version of Frederick and Annabelle Loren from the original. Rush gets a great opening scene as Price, showcasing his gimmicky new theme park attraction to a pair of reporters ('90s singer Lisa Loeb and James "Spike from Buffy" Marsters); even if it didn't quite make sense how that ride could've worked, it was still a great, thrilling scene that showcased what this guy was about, establishing that he's big on trickery and making it quite possible that, for much of the film that follows, he's the one behind the hauntings. It's no accident that he's named after Vincent Price, who played Frederick in the original, as Steven captures the man's attitude and style in both the writing and in Geoffrey Rush's excellent performance. Likewise, Famke Janssen makes for a great foe for Steven as his gold-digger wife Evelyn. She obviously hates the man's guts, enough to want to murder him so that she can inherit his wealth without risking losing everything in a divorce. She's cold, calculating, and gorgeous, three things that Janssen does very well, making for a highly watchable villain.

The scares, too, are effective. The makers of this film took advantage of forty years' worth of new technology and looser censorship to get away with some grisly kills, while also creating a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere for the house, with dark, dank passageways whose navigation requires a map that none of these people have access to. The house -- or is it Steven or Evelyn? -- loves to play tricks on people's perception before sending them for a ride. It's all been done better by other films, but for the most part, this one does them well. That said, the nature of a lot of the scares, as well as certain characters' reaction to them, does telegraph what is really going on.

Which brings me to the point where the entire house of cards falls apart: the story.

NOTE: From this point on, I'm going to have to spoil both the original House on Haunted Hill and this remake in order to say exactly what my problems were with this film. If you don't want either film spoiled, scroll down to the bottom and just read the score.

For much of the first hour, this film is, by and large, faithful to the original. Evelyn is trying to fake her death with the help of Donald, the doctor among the guests and her secret lover, hoping that one of the guests will blame Steven for her death and kill him with one of the guns that he had supplied to everyone at the start of the night. So far, so good. However, Evelyn then suddenly stabs Donald dead in order to create even more suspicion among the guests -- the man she was planning on running off with after she'd faked her death. In the original, that character died when trying to dispose of Frederick's body, only for Frederick to reveal that he had loaded the guns with blanks and wasn't quite dead, promptly dumping him into the vat of acid. That made sense given the characters and their motivations. Here, having Evelyn kill him is just making her evil for her own sake, at the expense of sanity. (On that subject, this film can never seem to decide whether the guns are loaded with blanks or live ammo, seemingly changing its mind depending on the scene.)

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, the film makes it very obvious that the house really is haunted, and that the ghosts do not play around. Early on, we see the ghosts playing tricks with Melissa's video camera, appearing in obviously ghostly form to the other characters, and doing things that should be physically impossible for any "conventional" special effects trickery to replicate. The original film hinged on the fact that all of the hauntings were staged, so here, the ghosts being real only introduces a vast set of complications, given that the plot really wasn't changed to match. Instead, an entire second plot is thrown on top of the first: the ghosts had changed the guest list in order to get their hands on the descendants of the doctors who ran the hospital. Interesting on paper, but in execution, it only creates more plot holes. Early on, it's established that one of the characters isn't who she says she is -- "Jennifer Jenzen" is actually Sara, an assistant to Jennifer who went to the party in her place, figuring that she needed the money far more than her asshole of a boss. Meanwhile, a single line towards the end reveals that another character, Eddie, was adopted. Having two of the five guests actually not be related to the doctors who got away should throw a massive monkey wrench in their plans, but for seemingly no reason at all, the ghosts come after them anyway. The ghosts' entire goal is contradicted. It didn't help that the supporting cast wasn't nearly as good as Rush and Janssen were. Ali Larter and Peter Gallagher were the best of a middling bunch, but Taye Diggs was wooden as Eddie, while Chris Kattan's Pritchard, as the man who's convinced that the place is haunted, frequently skirted the line of being outright annoying, feeling at times like a poor man's Jeff Goldblum.

And finally, we get to the big reveal of the ghosts... and hoo boy. The only thing scary about this mess of inky darkness is just how anybody in their right mind could've thought it would be a good idea to put such terrible special effects up on a big screen. I get it was 1999, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day was eight years old by that point, and somebody had to have realized just how ugly that black blob looked. The terrible, overused CGI effects of the climax suck out all tension from the film, rendering it virtually laughable.

Score: 2 out of 5

This remake started out strong, with great performances from Rush and Janssen and an intriguing sense of mystery, but then it went flying off the rails into a mess of plot holes so big that they combined into one massive sinkhole. Horrible special effects and a supporting cast that ranges from mediocre to outright bad merely made the problems worse. Only worth it for the first hour or so.

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