Original US release date: October 29, 1999
Production budget: $37,000,000
Worldwide gross: $65,090,541
Remaking a Vincent Price classic from forty years prior, 1999’s House on Haunted Hill from director William Malone (Feardotcom) was a bit outside the norm for a horror movie in the nineties. Scream rejuvenated the slasher film craze, and it was then followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer and a whole slew of other films of the type. So, going in a more supernatural direction allowed House on Haunted Hill to stand out from the rest, for better or for worse.
The 1959 version of the film actually had a bit of a reputation in my family as I was growing up because it scared my dad so much as a child that that was pretty much the end for him as far as horror movies go. For the record, this was the moment that did it:
The 1999 version maintains the basic premise of the original in which a millionaire offers a group of people a lot of money (in this case, $1,000,000) if they can survive the night in the house on Haunted Hill. Geoffrey Rush takes the lead as the millionaire, Stephen Price. The character is clearly named as a nod to Vincent Price, but the similarities don’t end there as the character design and, to a degree, the performance is an obvious reference to the legendary horror director.
Joining Rush is the underrated Famke Janssen – just months before appearing as Jean Grey in X-Men – as Price’s wife Evelyn, “Saturday Night Live” star Chris Kattan, future genre-movie queen Ali Larter, model-turned-actor Taye Diggs, former genre-movie queen Bridgette Wilson, and the man with the eyebrows Peter Gallagher. Everyone does what they need to. Janssen is delightfully seductive and simultaneously repulsive. Kattan brings a touch of humor to lines that weren’t even necessarily written to be funny. Larter adds a strength to her character that may have ended up helping her attain the role of Claire Redfield in the Resident Evil series, though that’s just my speculation. Wilson provides a familiar face for fans of cult cinema and then Gallagher brings the street cred. Nobody is pushed to the limits of their talents, here (this isn’t The Conjuring), but it’s clear that they each understand their role and what they need to bring to the picture as individuals. Janssen and Rush have the meatiest parts but it doesn’t really matter. People watch these movies to see beautiful people get terrified. The fact that these beautiful people also have talent is just a happy little bonus.
The story is essentially a locked-box mystery, a concept of which I’m personally a big fan. The “mystery” aspect of that combination is a little ambiguous, though. It’s more of a mystery for the characters, and not so much for the audience. But that doesn’t make it any less fun. There are a couple of truly bizarre sequences in the film and I have to say that the swerves aren’t entirely predictable. Right from the beginning, we see that Price is a master of misdirection – an amusement park tycoon (the film uses Universal Studios Orlando’s Hulk coaster in the film – my personal favorite roller coaster) that delights in subverting expectations. That plays itself out in the film and his character stays consistent throughout. But it’s the audience, along with the other characters, who is misled along the way and it becomes clear by the end just why Stephen and Evelyn are so perfect for each other (whether they want to admit it or not).
The film becomes overly dramatic in places, but that seems deliberate – a throwback to the era of films to which its progenitor belonged. Unfortunately, the climax loses sight of what the film is supposed to be and why it appeals to its audience. Malone and company must have felt that they needed to go big in order to go home, but that’s a counterproductive notion. What results is a convoluted CGI finale that’s utterly devoid of the scares or atmosphere that so strongly define the rest of the picture. On one hand, I get it. Horror movies are tough to do and they’re especially tough to end. Different people are scared by different things, so how can a filmmaker be expected to know what sort of climax would be the most terrifying to the most people? But the formless monstrosity that they settle on just doesn’t cut it. They overreach their budget and lose sight of the basic tenet that simple is best.
Still, the rest of the film is a fun sequence of events with an equally fun cast of characters. By containing them to a single location, the focus is kept on character and scares and it all works up until the final few minutes. It’s more intense and more adult than anything Vincent Price would have been allowed to do in his day, but I would like to think he would have enjoyed this homage to his work, for the most part. It’s not a Top Ten horror movie, but it’s underrated and has seemingly been lost to time. There are certainly worse ways to spend 90 minutes than by watching House on Haunted Hill and its relative simplicity is a thing that many horror films of today could stand to learn something from.
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