House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Released: 4th February 2000
Guilty Pleasures then, the films we know as serious horror fans we simply should not like. On numerous occasions I have mentioned to people my love of the House on Haunted Hill remake, and the general reaction I get just goes to prove my point that this film should not be anywhere near anyone’s list of favourite horrors, but here it is, on my list would you believe it, and I like to think of myself as having good taste! So please, before this puts you off trusting me ever again, or ruins my credibility, remember that The Exorcist is my favourite horror of all time!
I think my main reason for liking House on Haunted Hill so much is it’s sense of fun. Yes, it’s a bit cheesey and very commercially designed, but the fun director William Malone gets out of doing his absolute best to scare you shitless is too much to ignore. House on Haunted Hill, for me, is a fun horror with enjoyable characters, impressive sets, wonderful designs and sound effects and a good idea of what it’s audience wants. There is no doubting Malone’s skills, and he went on to direct the incredibly average FearDotCom and the impressive and sadly overlooked Parasomnia after this. But Haunted Hill will always be his best, and I will admit that this is one of my ‘comfort’ horrors that I like to put on every now and again so I can experience some horror without having to put in any effort. The theatrical like opening credits pretty much tell you that this film WILL be over the top and will be doing everything it can to scare you. The incredibly loud organs, the jittery images like eyes moving, a spider’s legs which move just the once and other bizarre photos moving about the screen, it all makes the film feel like a huge event, it’s theatrics, plain and simple! As if Malone hadn’t made his intentions clear, he follows the wonderful credits with a scene looking back at what happened in the Asylum on Haunted Hill. As expected, the patients attack the doctors in a brilliant and rather sick scene of violence and mayhem. What I respect here, and all the way through the film, is Malone is not a director to ponder over scenes, show too much or have things linger too long on screen. To me, this shows a director completely in control of what he is doing, and he does not feel the need to force feed his audience. In fact, the deaths in this opening scene are almost blink and you’ll miss them which, understandably and cleverly, leaves the viewer wanting more.
Sadly, the violence pretty much ends there for a while as we move forward to ‘now’ and meet our new cast, lead gloriously by the superb Geoffrey Rush as theme park owner Stephen Price. The name is actually a homage to the star of the original film, Vincent Price, and even though it seems Rush has tried to look like the original character, this was completely by accident. Rush wanted to look like film director John Waters, and when he turned up on set, he actually looked more like Vincent Price and so the makers decided to stick with it. Now, for me Rush is one of the main draws of this film, his character fantastically funny, rude and he just steals every scene. He almost comes across as a showman on stage, camping it up for maximum effect. He and his wife Evelyn (a gorgeously sexy Famke Janssen, although Liz Hurley was first approached to play the role) quite simply hate each other, but they actually seem to like to hate each other and this, oddly, makes their relationship stronger. I just love the banter between these two, its very tastefully and comically done and you really warm to both of them. An example of their doomed relationship see’s Evelyn tell her husband “I’ll run scolding water on that place you just touched me” and that’s after he simply puts his hand on her. If you can come away from the film with just one thing to enjoy, then it would have to be this crazy relationship.
Anyway, moving on from the violent opening, we are welcomed into Stephen Price’s theme park “from here on in it gets really scary!” The theme park is full of ride’s that trick you into thinking something has gone wrong, it’s awesome but sadly could never legally happen. Evelyn’s birthday is coming up, and the plan is to spend the night in the House on Haunted Hill, the old Mental Asylum, and she has stupidly given the job of sending out invites to her husband. He decides to invite who he wants, and the list of names he has on the computer actually include both the films director and writer’s name, just for fun. A force of electrical current, possibly from the house, changes the list after Price has left, and a group of complete strangers turn up at the house to celebrate a complete strangers birthday with the hope of winning a million bucks if they survive the night. At the house the strangers get to know each other, their host and the birthday girl while the camera spends time looking around for the viewer so you can see how spooky, and yet incredibly futuristic it all looks. Some of the paintings on the windows actually reminded me of the opening scene in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The house looks awesome, but somehow it all a bit too futuristic looking, and on first watch I wanted a more authentic looking haunted house, but I have got used to the design now, and to be fair it does get rather creepy once they all enter the basement.
Richard seems to know the house quite well, and when the locking mechanism that would lock all the patients in if ever there were a problem kicks in, he is happy to explain the history. Nasty experiments on vulnerable but violent patients, and it is said that the man behind the Asylum, Dr Vannacutt, still wanders the hallways. Lockdown means trouble, there is no way out, Richard plans to get drunk, Mr and Mrs Price are at each others throats and everyone is pointing the finger at Stephen Price. He plays innocent but when a gun is found which he assures is loaded with blanks, suddenly the guests sense real danger. Evelyn uses the gun to threaten her husband before announcing she is going to bed, but before she does she fires the gun, smashing some glass and then pulls off an incredibly sexy moment as she blows on the barrel of the gun and says “funky old house, ain’t it” and pulls a cheeky grin. She goes to bed, Stephen heads to a ‘control room’ where he has asked an employee to stage some scary accidents and keep a watchful eye using multiple cameras and the rest try to find a way out. In the control room, the guy has two Blockbuster videos on his desk, which are added in by CGI and actually wobble as the camera gets closer to them! Stephen enters the room to say job well done to locking up the house, only to find his employee with no face. He panics, looks at his wife on camera in bed and see’s an incredibly creepy image of Dr Vannacutt walking towards her room. Jittery, walking completely off and unsettling, its hard to explain exactly how this ghost looks, but it is awesome and now things really hot up.
The films running time is relatively short, so it gets down to business right from the beginning. The frantic pace and constant jokes, action, scares or visual wonders never cease, it quite literally pounds your senses. I first saw this film at the cinema and it was an incredible experience. After being brought up on horrors that generally build to a climax, it was refreshing to see one that had so much energy right from the start, and that energy never lets up. The second half of the film comes and we pretty much spend it running around the basement with scare after scare as the guests and Mr and Mrs Price face one scary situation after another. Visuals and sound effects are the driving force now, and this film contains some of the best produced ideas I have ever seen, but the issue is, there is simply too much going on and it becomes hard to keep up. Maybe the film would have benefited more from a longer version, to give build up to the scares rather than just one after another after another. The ideas behind the scares, and the delivery are inch perfect, but there’s just too many of them and they quickly become watered down. Amongst all this, Mr Price is still playing games and faking his own death, as is Mrs Price who is now working alongside one of the guests. It all becomes slightly confusing and a bit too hectic, but hell, its damn good fun!
A particular favourite of mine is when they lock poor old Mr Price in a chamber designed to make an insane man sane, or a sane man insane. Its loud, frantic and not somewhere you’d want to end up as we witness the poor fella quite literally loose his mind. In the cinema, every sound effect in the film was amplified, and if you listen closely, there is a whole array of noises going on in the background that the casual viewer just might miss. Dripping water, thunderous hums, static electricity, screams, cries its all there if you listen for it and goes to prove just how well informed Malone is on his horror. He puts everything into his glorious sound design and I quite simply adore it. I adore his use of terrific visual too, and sudden jolts of terror. Witness a creepy, shadowy figure just lingering in a doorway, a build up of noise and a bizarre breathing sound give way to the ‘creature’ suddenly jolting forward and screaming, revealing itself to be a hideous Demon. The whole design of the basement is sleazy, grim and almost perverse. I love the design, absolutely fuckin love it and I wish more films would just ‘let rip’ like this and just have some fun with horror. It even finds time to add in some spooky Church choir singing as one character is killed off. It feels like Malone has read the rule book for horror and added everything from it.
Ah, I love it, just love it. The film even finds time for a really pleasant, touching moment between Evelyn and Stephen which I think is a beautifully realised moment of their true feelings for each other. They are literally scratching each others eyes out amongst all the chaos and Stephen throws his poor wife threw a bloody wall! This lets out something that puts the fear of God into Stephen and he begs his wife to ‘Get up, Evelyn, get up! NOW!!!!”. Its just a wonderful moment which shows that they do actually love one another. Chaotic as the film is, the end just can’t deliver the goods after such a frantic pace and sadly the final moments are possibly the biggest let down of the entire film. But never mind the end, the first hour and ten minutes have been pure, over the top, glorious terror with a real sense of fun and a true belief in horror as a genre. Malone throws everything but the kitchen sink into his haunted house shocker, and if ever there was a perfect Friday night beer movie then this is it. Honestly, if you can’t find something to like about this film, then maybe you are not a horror fan at all? Or maybe I am completely wrong and I need my head examined!