The Bad Movie Report

House on Haunted Hill 1999

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No, there wasn't a glowing skeleton on a wire.

Or so those of you who read my review of the original House on Haunted Hill might ask. Though Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver may have formed a production company for the express purpose of remaking William Castle pictures, they apparently have no interest in attempting to duplicate Castle's ballyhooing showmanship. Which is either too bad or a case of both men being remarkably honest with themselves.

I don't usually do pictures of such recent vintage, but as I reviewed the original just as this remake was hitting the theaters, it seems only natural to address the remake a few weeks after its release to video. I'll try not to engage in any spoilers - there are a few surprises that should remain surprises - but instead satisfy myself with comparing and contrasting the two films.Proof that journalism hasn't come all that far.

First, let's find out about the House itself. It seems that it was the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane in the 30's, run by Dr. Robert Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs), who himself happens to be criminally insane - as the movie begins, he is eviscerating a patient without benefit of anesthesia. This no doubt contributes to the inmate uprising that results in an Island of Lost Souls -type comeuppance for the deadly doc, but not before he sets in motion a device that literally locks down the entire building: steel shutters close over every door and window, and the fires the inmates have set spread and kill everyone except for five staff members.

Geoffrey Rush as Vincent Price.   Er... Stephen.  I meant Stephen.This is presented as newsreel information (Vannacutt liked to film his depredations, and the inmates caught his messy death on film), which in turn is being broadcast on "Terrifying But True!" hosted by Peter Graves. This is being watched by Mrs. Evelyn Price (Famke Janssen) from her bubble bath - and she thinks this House on Haunted Hill is a spiffy place to have her upcoming birthday party, and tells her hubby, thrill ride designer and amusement park magnate Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) so.

We can tell that love does not exactly ooze from Stephen and Evelyn's relationship, and this is confirmed when Stephen shreds her guest list and manufactures his own. His idea is to offer one million dollars to anyone surviving the night in the House; his criteria is to invite people he knows would do anything for money, including enduring whatever spookhouse tricks he might muster. His criteria also becomes moot when something reboots his computer and rewrites the guest list.

Diggs, Rush, Gallagher.  The lineup that forms a complete sentence.So four people (Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher and Bridgette Wilson) are met at the front gates by the House's owner, Watson Pritchett (an extremely twitchy Chris Kattan), who guides them - rather unwillingly - into the foreboding structure's salon. The eternally warring Prices are surprised by their guests, though in different ways - Price himself is sure that Evelyn somehow redirected his guest list. Then the ancient, rusty shutters slam shut of their own accord, and a million dollars suddenly doesn't seem like that much money....

Geoffrey Rush makes a very good Vincent Price manqué, especially astounding since he's actually playing this showman as JohnAh, the loving couple.  NOT. Waters! But put a pencil-thin mustache and a cravat on Rush, and somehow it comes out Vinnie. Waters is an even better choice as a character model, and Rush's American accent is impeccable. Famke Janssen is an appropriately icy beauty in the Carol Ohmart role, though she adds a surprisingly, thoroughly vicious dimension to Evelyn. The remake preserves the original's cleverly-written sniping between the two ("arsenic on the rocks" is amended to "the O.J. Simpson knife with the not-so-retractable blade"), and yet manages to show that he somehow still cares for her - as Evelyn once points out, "a sick little scene" indeed.

Peter Gallagher assays an M.D., who in the Castle version was a psychiatrist specializing in cases of hysteria, one of the "amusing" aspects of the guest list Vinnie kept pointing out. Gallagher's character is even less well-defined than the others - and we'll get to that script deficit eventually - but in his case, it's justified.

Bridgette voids her warrantyThe updated equivalent of the aging gossip columnist in the original is a younger, out-of-work celebrity hoping to parlay he"Are you geting my good side?"r videotapes of the evening into a "wackiest home videos gig". Just as her 50's version was the only person to encounter truly supernatural phenomena - blood kept dripping from the ceiling onto her hand, no matter which room she was in - Wilson, trolling through the foreboding basement labyrinth for "pure gold", finds that her camcorder can see Vannacutt and his crew reenacting the vivisection in an empty operating room... and worse, they can see her.

Characters that wind up on milk cartonsLarter, in the chick role, has been changed from an office bound secretary to the assistant of a foul-mouthed, thoroughly hateful movie executive played by Debi Mazar. What? You don't remember that character? That's because her major scene was cut for time considerations, but it appears as a supplement in the DVD version. In it, Price's booby-trapped invitation literally bites the executive on the finger, and she fires Larter in a fit of pique. Larter later fishes the invite out of the trash, and seeing the million dollar clause, decides to impersonate Mazar. This scene excised, we are left with an unsatisfying, breathless confession by Larter that breezes quickly past us - but as every other character's backstory is given similarly short shrift, I guess we're not supposed to care.

For instance, Taye Diggs is our handsome, likable guy hero - amusingly, in the 50's he was the day's idea of a Man of Action, a test pilot - but here he becomes a "former" pro baseball player. From the way he ruefully says, "former". You know there's a story there. Too bad we'll never get it. Diggs is wonderfully likable in the role, with an easygoing Jimmy Stewart charisma and a "Who the hell glued our paychecks to the ceiling?"disarming smile that most matinee stars would kill for.

The character most shorted by this myopia toward character development is Watson Pritchett, played in the 50's by the eternal fall guy, Elisha Cook, Jr. What we know about this modern version is that his grandfather built the House, his father was killed during the renovation, and that he knows far more about the House and it's supernatural denizens than any person should reasonably know. What is not revealed - except, once again, on the DVD, during director William Malone's commentary, is that Pritchett has inherited the house, and though he has been unable to sell it, he still has to pay the taxes on it, and is thus living out of his car (though given Pritchett's feelings about the house, it would seem to be the wiser course of action to just walk away and let the county take possession). Also, as to his intimate knowledge of the Bad Things in the House - it turns out his father died trying to wall up the physical manifestation of the Evil that occupies the House. We see the half-finished wall several times. Pritchett comments on it. Malone tells us these things in the space of two sentences. HOW DIFFICULT COULD IT HAVE BEEN TO GET THOSE TWO SENTENCES IN THE SCRIPT???

That is one damned powerful flashlight.I suspect that the difficulty lay not so much in the mechanics of the storytelling process but in the desire to ruthlessly 'modernize' the story, which means attempting to unfold a horror story in MTV terms. To reference Malone's commentary track once more, the Mazar scene was cut in order to "get to the House faster". Thus, we go directly from the ghostly rewriting of the guest list to the procession of black limousines crawling up a mountain road to the titular house, accompanied (to strain the MTV angle a bit) by Marliyn Manson's cover of "Sweet Dreams". Not that the song is inappropriate - this segment, in fact, is a small masterpiece of visual storytelling - but when one recalls that the original employed this sequence for Price's narration to provide the backstory for each character... well, why, then, is each character so determinedly a cypher?

I can also crankily assert that the MTV damage can possibly run a bit deeper, too. One of the things the missing Mazar's (L) Cute, young, expendable;  (R) Cute, young, heroineexecutive shrieks at a beleaguered film director is "Where are my teens and tits? How do you expect me to get adolescent boys to see this?" The answer, of course, is that she need look no further than the movie she is in; a large part of the modernization process seems to include a liberal amount of profanity, lots of gore, and some nudity. As for teens, it goes almost without saying - and a glance at the video case or movie poster confirms this - that the cast is largely young and fresh-faced. The truly bad people in House on Haunted Hill are the older ones - the murder-game playing Prices (Rush is nearly 50 and Janssen is a luscious 36). Our heroes, Larter and Diggs, are teens in relative terms, if not truly chronological.

"Fine, Mr. Diggs, fine.  Now what else do you see in me besides a butterfly?"I had intended, before my MTV digression, to address the subject of the Evil that rears its ugly head in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, which is referenced by many as the point at which the movie sinks itself. (Since I saw the damned thing in the trailer, and on Entertainment Tonight in the picture's opening weekend, I don't think this truly qualifies as a spoiler) In the original, there were no such things as ghosts - at least, not in any sense other than mysterious drops of blood - but here, in the late 20th century, the collected spirits of the dead of the Institute are represented by a crawling Rorschach ink blot of epic and contentious, not to mention carnivorous, proportions.

A lot of people despise this beastie * - and I will, as usual, go against the Floyd knew he should have serviced his septic tank last week....grain by saying I liked it (keep in mind that I am also the person who speaks of the title character of Robot Monster in fond terms). As an attempt at creating something halfway Lovecraftian, it ain't bad - but we see far, far too much of it, and when it hovers in place at the end to menace Diggs, not only does it hold a shape reminiscent of those old, taxidermied manta rays that used to be passed off in 19th century museums as mermaids, but the visual elements used to make the ink blot seem a writhing collection of souls become far too obvious, a movie version of the old game where you stare at the camel on a pack of its namesake cigarettes until you see the naked woman. The whole concept and execution of the creature might be more charitably judged in a much lower budget movie *.

The remake manages to preserve all the plot holes of the original while contributing its own. I went on at some length in my review of the original about how it was, effectively, a harmless horror story for kids. At first blush, this new version has eliminated that aspect of the story; but in the final act, when we discover the fate of a character missing for most of the picture, my first Does Jeffrey Combs survive movies anymore?thought was, that's a bit much. Later, I realized that in concept, it was reminiscent of the incredibly gross stories we used to chill each other with around the campfire - and in that way, this new House at least keeps with the spirit of its predecessor, though deserving its R rating in spades. Considered in that light, I began to warm toward it.

Oh, and stick around through the end credits (really, you should be doing that anyway - each and every one of those people had a mother, you know)... there's a little something waiting for you on the other side.




Louder? Yes. Grosser? Definitely. Better or worse? Your call.

- May 7, 2000