One of the many sins of 1999’s oafish remake The Haunting — still my candidate for the year’s worst movie — is that the memory of its awfulness may keep people away from 1999’s other remake of an old haunted-house film, House on Haunted Hill, which is actually pretty entertaining.This update of the 1958 camp-horror chestnut by William Castle jacks up the shock effects and the booty (the reward for surviving the night in the godforsaken house is now $1,000,000, two zeroes more than in the original). It’s an unpretentious and cheerfully trashy night at the movies; horror fans could do worse, and lately they’ve had to.
Amusement-park entrepreneur Steven H. Price (Geoffrey Rush, whose character is named in honor of Vincent Price, who filled this role in the original) is planning a birthday party for his beautiful and hateful wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen), who wants to throw the bash inside a run-down house that used to be a mental institution. This hospital has an ornate backstory: It used to be run by the mad Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs in a performance without dialogue, unfortunately for fans of Re-Animator), who was fond of performing cruel surgical experiments on the inmates until they rioted in 1931. A fire was set, the hospital’s “lockdown” mechanism was triggered to keep anyone from escaping, and everyone burned to death inside. Great place to throw a birthday party 68 years later.
The people on Price’s guest list are deleted and replaced mysteriously by seemingly random outsiders: former baseball player Eddie (Taye Diggs), production assistant Sara (Ali Larter), TV personality Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson), and stoic Dr. Blackburn (Peter Gallagher). Also along for the ride: the fearful Pritchett (Chris Kattan, doing a Jeff Goldblum imitation), who owns the house and is renting it to Price, and Price’s assistant Carl (Max Perlich, cashing an easy check — all he does is push buttons and eat sandwiches). They, along with Price and Evelyn, are soon “locked down” in the house, which seems to turn on them with the vengefulness of the insane — or the dead.
This House on Haunted Hill feels a lot like a 90-minute episode of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, as well it should: The director, William Malone, helmed several episodes of the series, and the movie is the first production of Dark Castle, the new company formed by Crypt producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver to put out medium-budget horror films. The movie doesn’t skimp on the gore — at least two people are relieved of their heads, and one poor bastard gets his face scooped out — and there are some genuinely creepy bits, such as the opening inmate riot and the sequence when Price is locked into a sort of sensory-overload chamber that drives him temporarily mad.
True, the movie could have been fresher. About five scenes too many depend on characters wandering around in dark cobwebby places; I’m all for that, as long as it’s not run into the ground. I expected a juicier performance from Geoffrey Rush, who doesn’t camp it up as much as you’d think he’d want to (he was more fun in Mystery Men). And it’s hard to defend a film that wastes oddball talents like Combs, Perlich, and singer Lisa Loeb and Buffy vampire James Marsters (Spike) in eyeblink roles. (I didn’t even know he was James Marsters until I read the credits.) Overall, though, House on Haunted Hill keeps the scares and laughs coming (Chris Kattan provides most of the laughs). It’s a cheesy throwaway horror flick, but it’s a tight cheesy throwaway horror flick. You won’t be sorry you saw it — even if, two days later, you also won’t remember you saw it.