Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#361. House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Directed By: William Malone

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs

Tag line: "It's going to be a long night"

Trivia:  The rollercoaster in the beginning of the movie is The Incredible Hulk at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida

Though I'm a huge fan of the original 1958 William Castle / Vincent Price film, I was actually looking forward to the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill, if for no other reason that to see how the filmmakers would take what was essentially a 50-year-old low-budget classic, and turn it into a modern horror movie with state-of-the-art special effects. And while the resulting film doesn't quite replace the original as my favorite version of the story, there's plenty here to make this House on Haunted Hill an entertaining watch. 

When his wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), requests that her yearly birthday party be held at the long-abandoned Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute For The Criminally Insane, millionaire Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) is only too happy to comply. A master showman, Price sees this party as the perfect opportunity to get back at his conniving spouse, who's tried, on more than one occasion, to bump him off so that she could inherit his vast fortune. Shredding his wife's initial guest list, Price draws up one of his own, only to have it mysteriously replaced with yet another list of invitees, the source of which is unknown. Among those attending are former baseball star, Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), Dr. Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher) and Sara Wolfe (Ali Larter), who claims to be an executive with a million-dollar firm. The night of the party, the institute's current owner, Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), shuffles the guests inside, then immediately demands payment from Price. Obviously, Pritchett wants out of this building as quickly as possible, and it isn't long before we find out why. The site of a deadly fire over 65 years earlier, which claimed the lives of many patients and administrators, the Vannacutt institute is today a very haunted place, and the ghosts who reside there on a full-time basis don't particularly like the living. 

The first two scenes in House on Haunted Hill put me in the perfect frame of mind for what was to follow. Starting with a flashback to 1931, which shows the events that led up to the institute's deadly fire, the action then shifts to an amusement park owned by the extravagant Price, where he's about to unveil his newest roller coaster. I was really impressed with the style and energy of both these sequences, and settled in for what was promising to be an entertaining 90 minutes. The good times continued once the “party” got underway at the institute, where the constant bickering of the attendees was occasionally interrupted by a handful of truly chilling scenes. The cast is mostly exceptional, with Taye Diggs doing a fine job as the sole voice of reason, and Famke Janssen at her bitchy best, playing the gold-digging wife who isn't afraid to get a little blood on her hands. My favorite character, though, was undoubtedly Stephen Price, an homage to both the star (along with sharing a name, Rush looks almost identical to Vincent Price) and director (this Price is a master showman) of the original. 

Not everything works in this remake. Some of the initial scares in the institute are far too ordinary to be effective (breaking glass, falling beams, etc), and I prefer the more laid-back gloom and doom of Elisha Cook Jr.'s Watson Pritchett to Kattan's maniacal interpretation of the character. Also, if you're at all familiar with the first film, the two major twists towards the end won't be much of a surprise (many other elements from the original were changed...why not alter these as well?). That said, the positives do outweigh the negatives, and if it's a fun horror movie you're after, then House on Haunted Hill will be just what you're looking for.