by Adam Riske
House on Haunted Hill (1999) works in the way a remake should. It took the premise of House on Haunted Hill (1959) and modernized in logical ways to set itself apart from the original. I heard once (maybe from Elric Kane?) that a good remake is one you could play as the second feature on a double bill with the original. House on Haunted Hill (1999) is exactly that. It brings to the story modern horror elements (gore, special effects) that were either prohibited or unachievable when the original film was released 40 years prior. What the two films have in common is that they’re both a lot of fun, especially the emcee, which in the case of the remake, is a great horror performance by Geoffrey Rush doing a John Waters impression of the original’s turn by the legendary Vincent Price.
Deep Blue Sea, The Mummy, Sleepy Hollow, Stir of Echoes) and all-timers (Audition, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense). We were truly spoiled.
House on Haunted Hill (1999) gets its mileage both in front of and behind the camera. The cast of Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Jeffrey Combs are game, the direction by William Malone is enthusiastic and assured, and the makeup effects (by Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero and Dick Smith), cinematography (Rick Bota), production design (David F. Klassen), art direction (Richard F. Mays), and set design (Lauri Gaffin) give the movie a vitality that’s fitting for a movie about a “house” (in this case an asylum) with a life of its own. This is one of the most beautiful-looking horror movies of the ‘90s, along with the aforementioned Sleepy Hollow and the all-time champ, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. My favorite aspect of the film’s visual language is how equally inviting and scary it is. The original 1959 film is a blast but never scary. The remake has the leg up in that department, where you want to explore the house along with the characters but also are anticipating some disturbing imagery along the way, including unnerving hallucinations in a “Saturation Chamber,” jittery ghosts and mad doctors.
I also really enjoy the plot details involving the money. The strangers are told by Price that if they survive the night in the house, they will receive $1M made out to cash the next morning. If any of them should die, then the deceased’s money will be added to the pool to be evenly split among the survivors. That’s all well and good but (SPOILER) at the end of the movie, Geoffrey Rush’s character is dead (or perceived missing) so wouldn’t Ali Larter and Taye Diggs cashing millions of dollars in checks made out by Rush seem suspicious? Are they going to be arrested because no one will believe what happened? Also, how the hell are they going to get down from the top of the house where they’re stuck at the end? I say these not as nitpicks but as details I find silly and fun.