Retro Review: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

After my retrospective on the original 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, I decided that it was about time to take a stab at the 1999 remake. It’s one that I’ve been wanting to check out just out of sheer curiosity, but I wanted to see the original film first. Starting this movie up, I was expecting something insultingly bad, a slap in the face of the original. I was expecting MTV’s House on Haunted Hill, but is that what I got? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) is a millionaire in the midst of a most unpleasant marriage with his wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen). When she decides that they should throw a party to spend the night in a haunted mansion, Price takes it upon himself to change her guest list around. He also changes the rules, those who survive the night will be given one million dollars each. Price, Evelyn, and their guests (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Peter Gallagher, and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) soon discover the truth behind the dark past of the House on Haunted Hill.

In the original film, I had issues with a lot of the characters being flat, but the characters that worked I totally loved. Same case here, the actors I love in this being Geoffrey Rush and Famke Jenssen. Geoffrey Rush is Vincent Price in this, not just his character, he’s him. He keeps that devilish charm and even looks exactly like him in certain shots, while hamming it up to pump some life into this movie. I’ll get into my issues later, but I do have a problem with the pacing of this film, except when Rush is on screen. Every time he’s on screen, he’s such a blast to watch, turning his shit dialogue into something watchable. This also goes for Famke Jenssen, who is not exactly a Rush-caliber actor, but she is someone who I admire and enjoy seeing on screen. In this particular film, she holds her own against Rush very well, hamming it up just as much as he does. The two of them onscreen together chew up the scenery like crazy, and it’s just a delight to watch. They give this film some much needed personality.

I also want to praise this film for some genuinely really cool, creepy imagery. I’ll be the first one to tell you that the rules of the ghosts and how they work in this film make absolutely no sense, but I’m fine with throwing logic out the window if you’re sacrificing it to do something entertaining, which is exactly what they do here. There’s a really cool scene with Geoffrey Rush losing his mind, cool mutant things that move around fast (one legitimately made me jump), weird trippy imagery that sticks with you. It’s no surprise that the make-up effects here are done by Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, true masters of their craft. Thanks to them and their team of make-up artists you get some cringe-worthy, creepy imagery sprinkled throughout this whole film. We also get a CGI ghost monster, because the 90’s were all about CGI ghosts and ghouls after Jurassic Park, but it works here. Looking at it today, is it a bad special effect? Definitely, but the ghost itself is a genuinely creepy, intimidating being that made for a surprisingly tense chase sequence. Sometimes I can get past bad CGI if the design of the effect itself is cool, and this particular effect is something really creative.

Like I said, there are really cool special effects and imagery sprinkled throughout the film, and even the whole first 20-minutes are fun, but the biggest crime that this film commits is that it is fucking BORING. 75% of this movie is wandering through hallways or sitting in the lobby with characters who are bland as hell. It slightly picks back up at the ending, with the third act being less boring and more stupid (that Deus Ex Machina at the ending is fucking hilariously dumb) but the whole mid-section of the film, the entire second act, is just flat. It’s a shame too because the film starts out in a way that I was digging, putting new twists on the original film in fun ways, doing something different, but then you get to that second act and sure the special effects are cool every so often, but for the most part there’s just nothing going on.

It doesn’t help that the script here is awful. Sure, the special effects guys and even the director save the film as much as they can, but this script is just garbage. The script is written by Dick Beebe (no, seriously), acclaimed screenwriter of such classics as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and….well, those are actually the only two theatrically released films he ever wrote, with Blair Witch 2 being his last film. I wonder why? Well, because the dialogue that he writes here is just so bland and generic, when it’s not being just flat out terrible. It’s the type of dialogue that makes you say “Wow, a grown man wrote this?”. Not only is the dialogue bad, but the story itself just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You could say the same about elements of the original film, but that film was a bit more straight forward and far less boring than this one. I like revealing the back-stabbing plots early on, I thought that was different and cool, but everything after that is just a bunch of stumbling around until we find the next special effect. There’s really no cohesive narrative, nor is there really any continuity in the lore they’re trying to build. Beebe sets us up with this whole insane asylum backstory that just kind of ends. It goes absolutely nowhere.

It also doesn’t help that–with the exception of Evelyn and Price–the characters here are so bland. I won’t even blame the actors, they’re young and trying to bring something to the roles and they have personalities that shine through as much as they can, but the writing on the them is paper thin. They have very mild set up, but then nothing. There’s “I was a pro baseball player” and “I had a TV show” but none of these stories add anything to the characters, nor do they go anywhere in any sort of arc. You know what, I’d even be fine with the paper thin characters if these characters were just used as ghost food, but there isn’t enough of that. The movie spends too much time with them hanging out in tunnels  for them not to have some dimension. The two weakest players here are Chris Kattan and Peter Gallagher. Not only are their characters boring, despite the script trying to use them as devices such as “the comedic relief” and “the unexpected twist” which fails for both, but the actors themselves are just awful. Early on, I was trying to give Chris Kattan some slack because his character was written so badly, but there came a point where I just said “Nah brother, this script is horrible, but you’re acting isn’t helping.” and the same goes for Peter Gallagher. He says these lines as if he’s holding the script right in front of him, like he’s at the table read. The flat characters were an issue for me in the original film, but they were a far bigger issue in this film here.

I was expecting a film that was insulting in how bad it was, but I will admit that I was wrong with this one. I admire a lot of things about this, such as some of the new twists on the story (mainly in the first act), some awesome special effects, genuinely creepy imagery, and Geoffrey Rush chewing up the scenery with Famke Jenssen is a blast to watch. It’s just such a shame that the movie is so boooorring. That lull in the second act takes away a lot of points from this film. I’d be nicer if it were just 20-minutes or so that were slow, but it’s a good 45-minutes of this movie that is completely lifeless, following flat, boring characters through a flat, boring story with horrible dialogue and a plot that is as thin as those characters. This is far from being the worst of the horror remakes, but it isn’t exactly one of the best either. It had the potential to be something better than expected, but at the end of the day it ends up being very middle-of-the-road.

Rating: 5/10

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About Mike Annerino 21 Articles
Horror has always kind of loomed over me without becoming a big influence on my life until a few years ago. I sort of always accidentally fell into a horror film-viewing experience, at parties or friends houses and such, but I always had this secret love with fear, found something fun and fascinating about it. These past few years I’ve been playing catch up and discovering everything I’ve missed in horror, a genre that is constantly being inventive and fun to watch. The embodiment of nightmares, which gives way for infinite possibilities. It’s easily become my favorite genre