Friday, October 11, 2019

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 20 Years Later

by Adam Riske
Taye Diggs was in four movies in 1999. This was one of them.

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.
The 1999 remake was the first production from Dark Castle Entertainment. Before branching out to other horror and genre films, Dark Castle’s goal was to remake and modernize films directed and produced by William Castle. In addition to having one of the best production house logos of all time, Dark Castle was an easy company to root for because its mission statement was near to any horror fan’s heart. There’s a lot you can do with new, dark retellings of Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship or House of Wax. For me, it’s a toss up between House of Wax and House on Haunted Hill as my favorite of their remakes (they made some cool horror originals as well, including Orphan and Splice). House on Haunted Hill was also another example of the greatness of 1999 in film, where even the “trash” was good. In the horror genre alone, we had several films I could watch without hesitation today including popcorn favorites (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.
House on Haunted Hill (1999) works well as a party horror movie being both suspenseful and funny. And I love how goofy it is in some of its details. For example, the Geoffrey Rush character (named Steven Price, in a clear homage to Vincent Price) is an amusement park mogul and in his introductory scene he’s unveiling his new terrifying ride: Terror Incognita. This ride is ludicrous. First, you go up 20 stories in an elevator that fits maybe 10 people maximum. During the elevator ride, there’s a simulated drop (to give the rider the impression they’re going to die due to a ride malfunction) and then when the rider knows it’s a gag, they get out of the elevator and go on the actual ride which is a roller coaster. Ok, this ride would have an endlessly long line if you can only take a few people up at a time with the prank also taking a few minutes itself. Then, on the actual roller coaster, there’s another fake-out where the roller coaster car in front of yours flies off the tracks (it’s full of mannequins) to make you think that will happen to you next and you’re going to die. It’s a fun idea, but wouldn’t a heavy metal roller coaster car crush whatever it lands on? Do they have infinite cars? How do they get them back on the tracks? This ride is demented, and I love it.

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.
So, what is House on Haunted Hill’s (1999) legacy 20 years later? I think it’s aged quite nicely. While not unpopular at the time of its release, House on Haunted Hill seemed like a bit of an also-ran coming on the heels of The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, which were influential game changers. Party horror was taken a little bit for granted. With nostalgia and distance factored in, it’s nice to see the fun horror of the ‘90s getting more love. If you haven’t seen House on Haunted Hill (1999) in a long time or were unimpressed originally, give it another look.

7 comments:

  1. It was just recently I discovered that "House on Haunted hill" and "The Haunting of Hill House" are two separate entities.

    I've always assumed they were just remakes/retelling of one another but NOPE. Two entirely different ghost stories.

    A remake of the haunting of hill house titled "The Haunting" came out the same year as this.

    I wonder if they titled this film to sucker in fans of the other story. Like when you accidentally rent "Transmorphers" thinking it was "Transformers"

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  2. Having just watched the original House on Haunted Hill, your review of this remake definitely intrigues me! I may just have to add this to my ScaryMovieMonth viewing!

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  3. I was totally going to leave a comment about how this has a neat little unexpected kill, and then I realized that I was thinking of the Jan de Bont joint, The Haunting, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Owen Wilson. It also starred Liam Neeson, which I have no recollection of, despite him being on the poster. 1999 was a blur, and I'm gonna watch House on Haunted Hill ASAP.

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  4. I haven't seen this movie since High School. I need to revisit this flick.

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  5. I watched this in the theater and thought it was a scary and fun romp then. I've always defended it and am stoked to hear it holds up.

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  6. I'm pretty sure this is my favorite Geoffrey Rush performance.

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