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Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

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[House on Haunted Hill, release 1999; 93 minutes. R. Director: William Malone; Review by: Jon Weidler]

Remember the early days of the Internet, when most websites were primitive displays of text punctuated by the occasional jpeg? And then, how someone had the ingenious idea of message boards, which took the conversation out of the privacy of IM windows and into a virtual town square, where the opinions of others could be lauded or flogged by the majority? (Hey, all trolls emerge from some birth canal.)

Anyway: I was an active participant in the anonymous hate-fests that swirled around Amazon and IMDb. The only equivalent to commiserating with some virtual person on something you loved, was dragging something you hated for all online eyes to see.

On the now-ubiquitous JoBlo.com, I wrote a one-star review for William Malone’s remake of House on Haunted Hill, stating that the only part I really liked was the inventive opening-credits sequence. (I was eighteen at the time.)

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Everyone is familiar with the “all remakes suck” argument, which persists to this day (check #FilmTwitter for your daily fix). I trumpeted that bit of lameness loudly and often around the turn of the new millennium, and Malone’s House fell within my angrily reactive sights. My burgeoning tastes were still mired in the “Tarantino-lionizing” mentality, and feeling all the more superior for it. The mere notion of a remake put me on the defensive against something that couldn’t possibly be anything more than uninspired trash (ironic, since I responded favorably to Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho a year prior).

The passage of time is a strange thing, and reconsidering art we initially dismissed can yield interesting – and at times wonderful – results. After viewing Malone’s other efforts (his Masters of Horror episode, Feardotcom, and the Alien rip-off Creature) and building a certain degree of respect for his unique aesthetic sensibility, I picked up a cheap used DVD of House.

While I didn’t love the film on a second viewing, I respected it a lot more. It’s not perfect by any means: the storytelling’s clunky, characters make dumb horror-movie decisions (there’s a point where everybody wanders off by themselves), and some of the special effects – while ambitious for the time – fizzle in retrospect.

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It also heralds from the post-Scream era – before every horror film became either ultra-serious, or a blatant homage to ‘80s cult stuff – when the genre was allowed to play things for gory, real-world stakes …but still maintain a sense of fun amid the slaughter.

This was also the debut effort from Dark Castle Entertainment, whose impetus was actually pretty inspired: take those old, predicated-on-a-gimmick William Castle flicks and affix current special-effects technology, a fresh-faced cast, and a distinctly R-rated sensibility to the proceedings. For all the flaws of the new House – or Thirteen Ghosts or the non-Castle House of Wax – the commitment to world-building is admirable. (In hindsight, it’s something of shame that Dark Castle never got around to The Tingler – one can only imagine how wild that would’ve turned out.)

Anchored by the reliably campy charms of Vincent Price, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill told the tale of a millionaire who invites a group of people to the titular isolated locale, with a cash reward waiting in the wings if they survive the night. The devil’s in the details, and that bit of description is all you really need.

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The macabre delights of the updated House begin with the casting: while the presence of up-and-comers like a pre-Resident Evil Ali Larter and Taye Diggs feels obligatory, the real surprise is the game-for-anything prestige players who signed on for the ride. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for Shine three years prior, but plays amusement-park mogul Stephen Price with snarky relish (the character’s flamboyance – and pencil mustache – draws favorable comparisons to bad-taste auteur John Waters), digging into the psychosexual decadence of the character. Similarly, Famke Janssen leaves teeth-marks in the role of Stephen’s jaded wife, Evelyn. While Janssen rose to fame with Goldeneye, it bears noting she starred in Lord of Illusions, Deep Rising, and The Faculty prior to House. The performance utilizes her sex appeal to present a Venus Flytrap of a character, while playing up the comedic side she utilized to great effect in The Faculty. In the same room, this dynamic duo – with their casually cruel banter played for maximum dark-comic effect – are the stuff of horror magic. The presence of veteran character actor Jeffrey Combs (immortalized forevermore in Re-Animator) and an obscure cameo from Slavitza Jovan (Gozer in Ghostbusters) adds a bit of cult interest for a the Fangoria crowd. Blockbuster Video cases aside, the most dated bit of House may be the peripheral cameo by Lisa Loeb as a reporter doing a fluff piece on Price’s latest rollercoaster ride.

But Chris Kattan is the MVP of this House – it’s the only film of his I’ve seen, and he’s spectacular as Pritchett, the frumpy, neurotic owner of the titular estate. Something of a reverse Renfield, he finds a way to spout paranormal babble in a manner at once convincing and absurd. His jadedness toward the house as a manifestation of predatory evil leads to some genuinely funny punchlines.

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House is a film of literal and figurative facades. Of course, we have the look of the house itself, which, from a distance, has the classic “bedsheet ghost” appearance (with a vaguely phallic undertone). The corridors contain beings that twist and twirl like the specters from Jacob’s Ladder, and are often aberrant from human physiology – sometimes eyeless, or with a gaping mouth where a face should be. As a result, the supernatural imagery gives the Prices’ two-faced swindling an apt visual corollary. (There is also a great moment where one of Stephen’s thankless toadies, surveilling the event from the bowels of the house, literally “loses face.”)

While the Prices may be wrapped up in their own games of mercenary one-up(wo)manship, underlining wealth’s tendency to foster a cynical and manipulative worldview, their moments of fear are humanizing. While Stephen rebuffs Evelyn’s emasculating insults with a dry humor that teases at his true personality, his encounters with the unscripted horrors of the house come off surprisingly genuine. There is even a point in the last act where Evelyn, who has arguably manipulated events as much as Stephen, has a literal fight with her husband that sends her through a wall, but crescendos in a place of vulnerability and fear as the house amasses its dormant powers. In that moment, the characters show genuine concern for one another, underlining the human element beneath the playful sadism that 50 Shades of Grey missed. The fact that Stephen and Evelyn are unable to manipulate the metaphysical the way the house can, lends their characters a sense of humanity and vulnerability. Had their arcs not been realized to this extent, Rush and Janssen’s performances would’ve been little more than grating caricatures.

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But there’s also the theme of overcompensation. Sarcasm is a currency in today’s social-media landscape, and the Prices use it as protective armor. But theirs is no match for the real steel covering the windows of the house. And the phallic look of the structure – coupled with the “20 stories straight up” rollercoaster that kickstarts the movie – ties into the Prices’ persistently sexual one-liners, as if to suggest these man-made structures are, in their own way, a sublimated actualization of penis envy.

The film’s end-credits stinger suggests an ellipsis with the opening flashback, but transmutes it to an even darker place: that of the house as a veritable time warp/loop, swallowing souls and subjecting them to an eternity of torture, Hellraiser style. This is made even more unnerving by Malone’s use of black-and-white imagery and eroded film stock.

All that said, you need not peel away the thematic layers to enjoy House on Haunted Hill. At its base level, this is the type of modern update of a dusty ‘ol spook show that’s made for the pure joy of Halloween viewing. For all its flaws and inconsistencies, it’s a fun watch with ingenuity to spare.

Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a part-time assassin for Videodrome, and a full-time drone for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He co-hosts The Last Knock horror podcast with Billy Crash (aka William Prystauk), and his online opinions can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.

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Read Jon’s last review for Paranormal & Supernatural in Review with his take on Feardotcom! 

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