Turn Back the Clock
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was a kid, I was fond of watching the 4:30 Movie that aired every weekday on ABC. There would often be a theme each week and the movies aired would follow that theme. During certain special theme weeks, I would get to watch five different movies featuring Vincent Price. One such movie, House on Haunted Hill, made in 1959 and directed by horror genius William Castle, marked the debut of Vincent Price into the horror film genre. I had loved the film back then and rushed to see a remake of the film in 1999 starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Jannssen, Taye Diggs and Ali Larter. A newer, updated version of the film could only offer much more in the horror department and I couldn’t wait to get the crap scared out of me.
The 1999 version of House on Haunted Hill begins when Evelyn Price (Famke Jannssen) learns about the newly renovated Vannacut Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, an abandoned asylum now owned by Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan). Evelyn and her amusement park mogul husband, Steven (Geoffrey Rush), believe that this would be the perfect location for her Halloween birthday bash. An artist when it comes to frightful attractions, Steven arranges to scare the wits out of his guests by suggesting that they can’t survive a night at the “haunted” locale. Surviving a night at the house would earn any courageous individual on the guest list a million dollars.
That’s when the spirit of the house takes over and the original guest list is swapped out for a list of five other people who just happen to be related to former employees of the institution. These former employees were present on the night the patients conducted an uprising, attacking the staff members and attempting escape. The brutal eccentric director of the facility, Dr. Vannacut (Jeffrey Combs), stopped the escape by sealing the house and a fire destroyed everything - there were no survivors. Now, the spirits trapped in the house want revenge and who better to enact their revenge upon than descendants of the former staff?
Like the original House on Haunted Hill, the couple throwing this unusual shindig have an interesting relationship. Their marriage has become a complete farce and each would happily kill the other if given a chance. But that is mostly where the similarities end. The creepiness and the props that made the original movie so scary were outdated. Movie-goers of this era would not be impressed by these scare tactics. More than likely, they would be seen as laughable by today’s crowd. So, the scary scenes had to be amped up quite a bit with some horrifically fun special effects and a new history to the house. The result is a fun film full of jump-in-your-seat moments, incredibly gory deaths and truly cool special effects.
As the movie plays on, we not only learn more about the various murders that have taken place in the house over the years, but we discover the evil hidden in the house and the secret behind the names on the guest list. A subplot in the film is the lengths that the Prices will go to in order to finally be rid of their nemesis - each other.
Ali Larter and Taye Diggs are perfect as the heroes of the film, overcoming all of the odds in an effort to uncover the mysteries of the house and survive the fate that awaits them. Chris Kattan is hysterical as Prichett, the reluctant owner of the estate. He’s not funny in that silly sort of way, but in that hysterical “Oh God, we’re all going to die!“ bungling and nervous style that serves to enhance the creepiness of the film. Famke Jennson is perfect as the bitchy trophy wife, Evelyn Price, and Geoffrey Rush is sleeze personified as Steven Price. Fans of the original film will note how much Rush looks like Vincent Price in this film. A nice homage to the original movie, to be sure.
The DVD version of House on Haunted Hill includes a number of interesting extras, including deleted scenes accompanied by commentary from director William Malone, trailers from the 1959 film and the 1999 version, and DVD-ROM access to web events, chat rooms, genre essays and more. My favorite section contains the behind the scenes documentaries explaining the similarities and differences of the original film and the remake as well as the reasoning and difficulties behind creating the various frights in the 1999 film.
House on Haunted Hill (1999) is a perfect movie to watch in the days leading up to Halloween, on a spooky Halloween night, or on any occasion where you need a good scare. Visually and storywise, this remake is a helluvalot scarier than the original film and should be placed high up on your best horror film list.