Alright, let me first get this out of the way. I don’t know if I can actually argue the House on Haunted Hill (1999) remake is technically a good movie. It’s type of random, “jittery” ghosts are similar to those you might find in another remake, The Amityville Horror (2005). I recently wrote about how that was a bad haunted house remake, for those unaware.
I think the difference between these two remakes is in the tone. It felt like The Amityville Horror was trying to be a more serious, straightforward horror film. House on Haunted Hill cares perhaps more about being fun than scary. It’s similar to those haunted house attractions that come out every Halloween season. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, House on Haunted Hill is goofy fun. The remake celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this year, on October 27th.
The original House on Haunted Hill (1959) celebrates it’s 60th anniversary this year as well. That anniversary has already passed, on February 17th. I was lucky to see both versions on the same night, when I was a freshman in high school. I made a friend that year named Mark who shared my love of horror films. Coincidentally, I also found out that his mother was my psychiatrist when I was younger. That’s beside the point though.
Throughout high school, and even a little further beyond, Mark and I had a tradition. This tradition was spending the night at each other’s houses. We’d rent several horror movies, and watch as many as possible before falling asleep. I typically went for the slashers. Mark was the one who would introduce me to Vincent Price. I want to say it was the first time I spent the night at his house. His dad first took us to see the remake of House on Haunted Hill in theaters. Afterward, Mark showed me the original with Vincent Price. Mark was a huge Vincent Price fan. At the time Price was his favorite actor, though I don’t know if that’s still true.
Through Mark, I became a Vincent Price fan myself, though nowhere near as much as him. House on Haunted Hill remains my favorite I believe. House of Wax (1953) is probably my 2nd favorite. I had the pleasure about a year ago to finally see it in it’s original 3-D format on Blu-Ray. It really is a lot more fun that way. I know I’m being a bit basic with those two choices. The Haunted Palace (1963) was another favorite, although I haven’t seen it since high school. I really like the original The Fly (1958) as well.
There are other non-horror projects wider audiences might recognize Price from. He appeared in the biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956) as Baka. One of his more amusing credits was in the two-part Hawaii episode of TV’s The Brady Bunch. One of his last roles was as The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990), probably my favorite Tim Burton film. And of course, he was the Narrator in the Michael Jackson song “Thriller.”
William Castle directed the original House on Haunted Hill. Vincent Price starred in two of Castle’s films, the other being The Tingler (1959). Perhaps more than the films themselves, people knew director William Castle for his promotional gimmicks. House on Haunted Hill had a gimmick called “Emergo,” which took place at a particular moment in the finale. A plastic skeleton would rise up from a black box and then fly over the audience.
Let me discuss the plot of House on Haunted Hill. Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites five strangers to his wife Annabelle’s (Carol Ohmart) birthday party. The fact that Frederick invites strangers is partly his way of sticking it to his wife. They have a hostile relationship. It’s amusing that they’ve almost made it a game as to who will kill the other first. Annabelle, with a laugh, openly admits to trying to poison Frederick in the past. At one point, Vincent Price says, “What husband hasn’t, at some time, wanted to kill his wife?” It’s one of his funnier lines. We later find out that Annabelle is having an affair with one of the guests, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal).
There’s a catch. The party takes place at a supposedly haunted house where seven people were murdered. Frederick offers $10,000 to anyone who stays and survives the entire night. For anyone that doesn’t, their portion will be divided among the rest. Elisha Cook Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby, Salem’s Lot) is a standout in the cast, playing Watson Pritchard. Watson owns the house, and believes all the ghost stories of the house are indeed true. Also among the cast is Julie Mitchum, sister of legendary actor Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter, Scrooged). Carolyn Craig (Giant, A Face in the Crowd) plays Nora, one of the film’s lead protagonists. Sadly, Craig took her own life with a gun in 1970, at the young age of 36.
The scares of the original House on Haunted Hill are quaint, but that’s the whole charm. The film opens with screams and creepy noises heard over a black screen. Eventually, Elisha Cook Jr. and Vincent Price’s respective, disembodied heads float towards us, bringing us into the film. The opening theme music playing during the credits originally had lyrics. The horror we see throughout involves falling chandeliers, a piano playing by itself, blood dripping from the ceiling, a vat of acid, a floating old woman, decapitated heads, and moving skeletons. Though you could argue we may never see any actual ghosts. Horror host Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson credits the original House on Haunted Hill for getting her into the horror genre.
In the remake of House on Haunted Hill, the reward for surviving the night raises to $1,000,000. The film opens with a pretty creepy main theme from Don Davis (The Matrix, Valentine) playing over the credits. The whole score is pretty exceptional, with the pipe organs being a nice touch. I thought the rock track “Struggling to Escape” was so cool at the time. It plays during a montage scene maybe halfway into the film.
After the credits, we open on the house itself, which is now a former sanitarium. It’s a steep building which juts out of the cliffside, almost as if it’s ingrained into the earth. Jeffrey Combs (Castle Freak, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) plays Dr. Vannacutt, who runs the asylum. This was a few years before I would recognize Combs from his most popular role in Re-Animator (1985). Rocker Marilyn Manson was in consideration for the role, but time constraints got in the way. He still contributes a great cover of the Eurythmics song, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
Dr. Vannacutt and his staff do cruel, torturous experiments on the patients. That is until the patients rebelliously break free and have their bloody revenge. We get a vintage newsreel of the lunatics running the asylum. Burned and mutilated bodies sprawl across the floor. We then see that the newsreel is on a scary true crime show. Peter Graves (Airplane!, Mission: Impossible) appears in a cameo as the show’s host.
In that opening scene, a patient stabs pencils through a nurse’s neck. If you don’t get the tone of the film from that moment, then I wish you good luck. Screenwriter Dick Beebe plays that nurse. Beebe would go on to write the much-maligned sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000). I however think that sequel is better than it’s reputation.
The director of the House on Haunted Hill remake is William Malone. Malone was more involved in TV horror. He directed episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares and Tales From the Crypt. He even got his own Masters of Horror episode. I did see his follow-up film to House on Haunted Hill, Feardotcom (2002). It was a bootleg copy back when I was in high school, obviously recorded in a theater. As such, I wasn’t sure if my misery was more from the quality of the print, or the film itself. I believe it’s probably the latter.
A couple producers of House on Haunted Hill were bigger names. Joel Silver (Weird Science, Die Hard) was the producer of a ton of movies. However, my intrigue was more with Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her). Zemeckis was the director of one of my all-time favorite movies, Back to the Future (1985) and it’s two sequels. Collectively, they’re also my favorite non-horror movie series. I’m also still a big fan of Forrest Gump (1994), and I don’t care what you say. William Malone was actually in Zemeckis’ first feature film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978). I haven’t seen it yet, but William Malone plays George Harrison, a member of The Beatles. He didn’t take credit for the role.
Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis created the production company Dark Castle Entertainment. The initial intent of the company was to remake several William Castle films. They did do another one after House on Haunted Hill, Thir13en Ghosts (2001). I saw it, though my memories are vague. From what I remember, that one went a little too far into goofiness for me to enjoy. Those were the only William Castle remakes they did.
Dark Castle did however do a remake of another Vincent Price film, House of Wax (2005). They change it to a teen slasher movie. Regardless, I actually had a lot more fun with it than I expected. It also stars babe Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door, Old School). And who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to see someone kill Paris Hilton (Zoolander, The Bling Ring) in a movie?! I haven’t seen one of Dark Castle’s original horror movies, Ghost Ship (2000), yet. I remember Gothika (2003) being pretty good. Plus, it co-stars Robert Downey Jr. (Less Than Zero, Iron Man), a hero of mine.
Dark Castle would also produce Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007), the straight-to-video sequel to the remake. I didn’t bother watching it until now. It has two groups of people searching for an ancient artifact in the house. The artifact is supposedly responsible for the evil in the house which possesses Dr. Vannacutt. I really didn’t need, or want, an explanation. It was more fun to see it as a different time. The experiments carried out on the sanitarium patients probably weren’t seen quite as cruel then as they would be now.
Jeffrey Combs is the only actor to return from the first House on Haunted Hill. There are some other familiar faces from the horror genre however. Amanda Righetti (Role Models, Captain America: The First Avenger) is one. She went on to also star in the reboot of Friday the 13th (2009). I’d like it to be on the record that I hate that remake. Righetti plays the sister of Sara, one of the only survivors in the first House on Haunted Hill. Ali Larter does not reprise her role.
Cerina Vincent (It Waits, Tales of Halloween) also appears. She was in Eli Roth’s debut film Cabin Fever (2003), which is among my favorite horror films. She’s also the nude foreign exchange student Areola in the spoof Not Another Teen Movie (2001). Return to House on Haunted Hill does have a gimmick, a “Choose Your Own Adventure” version of the movie. They don’t make enough use of it though. It’s not a good, or fun, movie either way.
Instead of Frederick Loren, we have Stephen Price in the remake of House on Haunted Hill. The name is obviously an homage to original star Vincent Price. I also see elements of William Castle in the character. Stephen is an amusement park mogul. When we first see him, he’s showing off his latest rollercoaster attraction to a reporter and her cameraman. It somewhat baffles me that singer Lisa Loeb, of “Stay (I Missed You)” fame, plays the reporter. However, she also apparently appears in the Fright Night (2011) remake. That was a pretty good remake of a horror film that’s in my top 10. I’m told that James Marsters, who plays the cameraman, was a regular on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. I never watched that though.
Stephen’s latest rollercoaster starts at the top, so the three of them take an elevator. The cords of the elevator seem to snap off, and they soon think they’re plummeting to their death. It’s a gimmick though, just part of the ride. What seem like elevator windows are actually videos, and the elevator shakes on purpose. Upon getting off, Stephen turns to them and says, with campy delight, “From here on it gets really scary!” As they ride the rollercoaster itself, the coaster ahead of them seems to fly off the tracks. The coaster and people on it are fake, however. Even if Stephen Price is rich, I don’t see how this trick is affordable for every ride. Whatever.
Geoffrey Rush (Finding Nemo, Munich) plays Stephen Price. He was actually trying to resemble controversial filmmaker John Waters (Hairspray, Cry-Baby) with his performance. Yet he ends up looking pretty similar to original star Vincent Price. Rush had already won an Academy Award for his performance in Shine (1996) by this point. Around the same time House on Haunted Hill came out, he was up for another in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Two more Oscar nominations came his way later, for his work in Quills (2000) and The King’s Speech (2010). It’s a bit surprising to see him in this film. At the same time, he doesn’t seem above it, appearing to have a lot of fun.
Famke Janssen plays Stephen’s bickering wife Evelyn. Wider audiences probably most know her from GoldenEye (1995), and the X-Men and Taken series. GoldenEye is one of my favorite James Bond movies. I like some of the X-Men movies, though the X-Men aren’t my favorite superheroes. I’ve only seen the first Taken (2008), but I did like it as well. However, these aren’t the movies I most associate her with. She was previously in The Faculty (1998), a teen sci-fi/horror movie. It’s one of my favorite Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) films. She was also later in a lesser-known comedy The Ten (2007), which I was a fan of. I’m a fan of David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Wanderlust) and his films in general though.
Not only is Evelyn having an affair with Dr. Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher) in the remake. She’ll also kill him to make extra sure her plan to frame her husband for her fake death will work. Janssen is a babe, but not just a babe. Her snarky interactions with Geoffrey Rush are delightful; the two have good acting chemistry with each other.
Stephen and Evelyn won’t survive the night, and be sure to stick around after the credits. There’s old video footage of the mental patients torturing them. It’s similar to the end of The Shining (1980). As ghosts, they’re forever a part of the house’s history. There were two scenes in particular from the original House on Haunted Hill that William Malone wanted to keep. One was the scene of husband and wife bickering with each other. They even more jovially talk about Evelyn’s previous attempts on Stephen’s life. The other is where guns are presented in coffins to their guests.
Unlike the original, there’s no question as to whether ghosts exist in the remake of House on Haunted Hill. There’s an admittedly hilarious scene early in the film that implies ghosts hack Stephen’s computer to change the invitees. Most of the invited guests are descendants of the original sanitarium’s staff. That’s not true of Sara however, who is posing as her film producer boss Jennifer Jenzen. There were scenes that didn’t make it to the film where Debi Mazar (Batman Forever, Empire Records) plays Jenzen. She’s a ruthless producer, and Sara is her pitiable assistant.
Ali Larter plays Sara. She was already in Varsity Blues (1999) as the cheerleader in the whipped cream bikini. After House on Haunted Hill, she did more horror. I actually like Final Destination (2000) and Final Destination 2 (2003) even more than House on Haunted Hill. The first Final Destination was even among my favorite horror movies for awhile in high school. She also has a small role in the funny Kevin Smith movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). Since then, she’s been in some Resident Evil sequels, but I’m less a fan of those.
There seems to be a romance brewing between Sara and Eddie, a former baseball player. Taye Diggs plays Eddie. I remember Diggs popping up from time to time, but I most recognize him from a couple of musicals. He had a small role in Chicago (2002), a musical I love which won the Best Picture Oscar. However, I passionately hated Rent (2005) at the time of its release. Admittedly, I was a prudish Christian at the time, and I haven’t revisited it since. There’s a lame scare involving Eddie in the film. A ghost imitates him, though his “Blade Runner eyes” give away (to us, at least) that it’s not really him. The ghost falls into a vat of blood in order to bait Sara. I don’t know what the ghost’s intentions are. To drown her, maybe? It doesn’t work as a scare either way.
The one character that retains both personality and name in the House on Haunted Hill remake is Watson Pritchett. Well, the last name is spelled differently for some strange, unknown reason, but it sounds basically the same. Pritchett is the character that knows what he’s talking about, even though people don’t initially believe him. They laugh him off. Speaking of laughs, Chris Kattan plays Pritchett. Audiences at the time knew Kattan from Saturday Night Live. He was also in the SNL spin-off movie, Night at the Roxbury (1999). He has disappeared somewhat since then. I see him pop up from time to time on talk shows though, talking about the SNL glory days.
Kattan has an amusing, nervous energy in House on Haunted Hill. The highlight scene featuring him is when he tries to intimidate Stephen, firmly demanding his money so he can leave. He tells Stephen, “Goddammit, you give me my goddamn check right now! ‘Cause I want it! So you give it…now!” He delivers the line with perfect comedic timing.
There are some memorable scare scenes in House on Haunted Hill. My favorite involves Melissa Marr, an aspiring TV show host. I was already well-familiar with Bridgette Wilson-Sampras at this point, a fan of previous movies she was in. She was Adam Sandler’s hottie teacher Veronica Vaughn in Billy Madison (1995). She appears in the movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat (2005) as Sonya Blade. I was a huge fan of the video game, and I like the first movie too. She also plays Sarah Michelle Gellar’s sister in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). I still really like that Scream-era horror film. I also had a huge crush on its star, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, at the time. You can also spot Wilson-Sampras as an extra in some episodes of Saved by the Bell.
The scene I mentioned has Melissa traveling through the house with her camera. She comes upon the sanitarium staff performing their gruesome experiments on the patients. When she lowers the camera, however, they’re not actually there. They appear again as she raises the camera, and slowly and suddenly look up at her ominously. Melissa starts to sense something behind her. As she turns around, we see a ghost standing in the corner. The ghost suddenly charges at her, jittery, with skin over its eyes. There’s a flash montage of strange images. Then wind blows Melissa’s hair back as she screams.
Stephen Price has a man, Schecter (Max Perlich), working for him at the house. Among other things, Schecter keeps an eye on cameras positioned around the house. Stephen later checks on Schecter, shocked to find that his face has been hollowed out. Then as Stephen looks up to the cameras, he sees the ghost of Dr. Vannacutt. Vannacutt walks unnaturally and suddenly convulses. As the convulsions stop, a cleaver appears in his hands. It’s almost-cartoonish fun.
The saturation chamber is another highlight scene. Stephen’s guests throw him in it after they believe he’s responsible for his wife’s (fake) death. The belief is that the chamber will make an insane person sane, but a sane person insane. It begins with a zoetrope of Vannacutt bouncing a red ball. The crew uses what they call a “Van Gogh effect” for Vannacutt’s eventual appearance. He laughs as he bounces the ball to Evelyn, the ball turning into Stephen’s decapitated head.
Then Stephen has other disturbing visions. He sees a nurse with a pale face, dark eye shadow, and bright red lipstick. “Twisted Nurse” is how she appears in the credits. People might be interested to know that Slavitza Jovan plays her, who was also Gozer in the original Ghostbusters (1984). It’s apparently Vannacutt who stands behind her. He looks more like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family in this shot. His head starts to suddenly shake violently back and forth.
They throw Stephen into a dunk tank, and Stephen also sees a blonde woman in there with him. The next time he sees her though, she’s different. She has an eyeless face with an enlarged mouth. Her hair whips back as she screams. Dick Smith created this effect for Ghost Story (1981), but they didn’t use it. William Malone loved it, and asked Smith if he could use it instead. Smith gave his permission.
There’s no getting around it. The last ghost in the finale of House on Haunted Hill is dumb and looks pretty bad too. This ghost is a combination of different spirits, while also apparently the source of the house’s evil. It looks like an inkblot at times. Also stupid is how Pritchett’s ghost ultimately shows up to save the day. He’s somehow able to let Sara and Eddie out of the house. There are some cool Steadicam shots though from the ghosts’ point-of-view as they chase Stephen Price. I also like how after the ghosts have their way with him, Stephen turns into this ashy figure, which explodes.
Yes, the remake of House on Haunted Hill is sometimes goofy, dumb, even bad. I won’t deny that. A lot of its scares are random with no meaning behind them. However, I’m able to forgive the movie for all of this simply because it’s fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should we. It’s not one of the best horror movie remakes out there, true. Yet it’s also far from the worst. Buy the ticket, take the ride.