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HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
Starring: Geoffrey Rush & Famke Janssen
Genre: Horror / Thriller
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Rating: R for horror violence/gore, sexual images and language.
Video Release: 18 April 2000
Tagline: "Evil loves to party."
House on Haunted Hill, a remake of the 1958 film starring Vincent Price, is by no means the standard for horror films of the future. It features stock characters, campy situations and cheap shock value. Beyond that, it's also a creepy exercise in disturbing imagery and hair-tingling suspense. If you can overlook certain shortcomings, this film can be a fun and compelling ride -- even if the ending lands on the flat side.
Beginning in 1931, we are witnesses to the Vanacutt Psychiatric Institute where Dr. Vanacutt expresses his own perverse insanity by carrying out inhuman operations on patients without anesthetic. The inmates revolt (shown in gory detail) in which Dr. Vanacutt is strapped to his operating table and receives a taste of his own medicine. Just before the good doctor meets his demise, he throws a switch that locks down the asylum in which the inmates perish in flame.
We are then introduced (in present day) to Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush), a sleazy, theme-park entrepreneur who specializes in near-death experiences. Price is married to the voluptuous Evelyn (Famke Janssen) whose antagonistic relationship teeters on murder fantasy for both parties. To celebrate Evelyn’s birthday, Price throws an unusual celebration at the "restored" psychiatric hospital -- alleged to be haunted. He invites four strangers (Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Ali Larter, and Melissa Marr) to spend a night in the creepy old asylum that he rents from the asylum's nervous inheritor, Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan).
Price has an enticing offer for the chosen ones (who chose them is another story). The five strangers are offered one million dollars each if they can make it through the night (alive). To create a "haunted house" effect, Price acquires the services of an assistant who sits in a far-off room, controlling various pranks. It's not before long when the house decides to pull its own prank, by locking them ALL in (same way the inmates in ‘31 get trapped) and unleashing its own game of death.
What works best with this film is the horror is based on the idea that you don't know who's doing what and who's involved with whom. While it's a straight horror film, it is executed in a campy way with plenty of energy and an ample supply of twists. The questions you find yourself asking are: Who is behind these pranks? Price? His wife? Pritchett? The house? If it truly is the house, is anything we see real? What about those who die? Is it fake? Even after the final scene (borderline ludicrous with an all-out special effects barrage), the surviving guests find a slightly burnt envelope, causing you to rethink whatever conclusions you might have come to.
Unfortunately, where House on Haunted Hill falters is its inability to make one care about any of those locked in this "fun house of doom" -- though a few are quite entertaining. Price and Evelyn have a very "Gomez-Morticia" (The Addams Family) relationship which is a pleasure to watch. The other show stopper is SNL’er Kattan who whines and sucks down booze, figuring they’re all dead anyway, no matter what course of action they take.
And what course of action do they take? (This is where you get to yell at the characters.) They proceed to explore the cobweb infested basement where dead bodies are proudly displayed and huge vats of blood sit waiting for the unsuspecting. The guests disappear one by one (of course they split up looking for the missing) in which others fall victim to the house’s will. There are several chilling visions but the one that creates the most anxiety is when one of the guest captures images of patient dismemberment on her camera, only to discover that nothing is actually there.
While the filmmakers place emphasis on elaborate gore and a disturbing atmosphere, the cast does little except wander about aimlessly, waiting to be served up to the slaughter. Our heroes turn out to be characters that we grow to care nothing about (unlike the character of Ripley, from Aliens, for example). It almost comes to the point where you'll find yourself rooting for the house to win the million bucks.
House on Haunted Hill succeeds because while it is a horror film (mischief executed by conspiring humans, as well as, ghastly spirits) it relies more on comedy and the absurdity of its characters than anything. It fails because we never truly give a damn if anyone does survive the night. Go with a "3." A good way to kill a few hours.
© Terrence J. Brady
The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).