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House on Haunted Hill (1999)
I have to admit that I have a bit of a bias towards haunted house films. Horror is my favorite genre, and for whatever psychological reasons (I suspect it has something to do with my earliest experiences with the genre, and perhaps watching too much Scooby Doo as a kid), there's nothing I like as much as a good haunted house film. House on Haunted Hill is one of the most entertaining, well-made haunted house films I've seen in awhile.
Director William Malone's film is roughly a remake of a William Castle film of the same name from 1959 (which starred the incredible Vincent Price). I haven't seen the Castle film yet, but based on the clips of it that are contained on the DVD, Malone's film is much more my cup of tea.
Geoffrey Rush is Steven Price (in a nice tribute to Vincent's role in the original), an amusement park entrepreneur who most hardcore horror fans would emulate if they were in his position (well, at least I would). He's an obvious hedonist with a taste for making life a fun, but terrifying game of sorts--exactly the qualities you need in a great amusement park honcho. His wife, Evelyn (the gorgeous Famke Janssen), makes no bones about having married him for his money. She likes to make him spend it on her in lavish ways, including renting out a huge, formal mental asylum--the house on Haunted Hill--with a gruesome history for a birthday bash. Price invites the guests (at least he think he does) and sets up one of his technicians in a back room full of electronic gadgets rigged to help him have fun with the guests. Price has so much money that he casually offers each a million dollars to stick around through his games until sunrise. The problem is that the house may really be haunted.
That's the premise, and since it's a horror film, you can probably guess a rough outline of the rest of the plot. What makes House on Haunted Hill so outstanding isn't originality of plot (and you shouldn't expect that since it's a remake), although the story is entertaining, but the way all of its factors work together to create onscreen magic; a chemistry of cast and crew that clicks and adds up to more than the sum of its parts. You can tell there's something special about this film the minute the credits roll--the sequence is imaginative, sets the atmosphere of the entire film to follow, and uses impressive but not obtrusive camera and special effects tricks.
The opening dramatic sequence is also brilliant, and in a wonderful, darkly comic but disturbing way shows us the history of the house on Haunted Hill while surrealistically catapulting us into the present and explaining how our present cast ends up there.
House on Haunted Hill doesn't present in-depth character studies, and the performances are more campy than poignant, but both facts fit this film perfectly because Malone and scripter Dick Beebe aren't trying to create heartfelt Shakespearean drama so much as a cinematic version of a ride from Price's fictitious amusement parks, and that they do perfectly.
From the moment our heroes descend into the basement of the House on Haunted Hill to try to reverse the "lockdown" mechanism, the film brilliantly blends scares, atmosphere, black comedy and wonderfully surreal visuals that show us everything from supernaturally mobile ghosts (they move in many bizarre ways) to huge, hungry vats of blood to an experience in the interior of a machine designed to "make the insane sane, and the sane insane," and great, rolling, "Jackson-Pollack meets H.R. Giger meets Rorschach inkblots" shadow with sinister motivations. Yes, it's effects-laden, but the effects are never the only point. They always serve to create an experience for interesting, likeable characters in the ultimate haunted house this side of The Overlook Hotel from The Shining, and that is the point.
Note on the DVD: House on Haunted Hill has one of the better collections of extras I've seen (although not as impressive as the Phantasm Limited Edition DVD), from featurettes contrasting the 1958 version with the present one to numerous special effects featurettes, excellent deleted scenes, and a great director's commentary. The DVD is a must.