Monday November 1, 1999
Humans do so many horrible things to each other in "House on Haunted Hill" that the ghosts don't stand a chance of keeping up, which may explain why the script makes such nitwits of the characters--if the spooks are going to make an impression they need all the help they can get. So the movie's gorgeous coterie of house guests doesn't turn tail at the first big scare; they wait around to get picked off one by one.
This is a remake of the 1958 camp classic that starred Vincent Price. The co-producer, Terry Castle, is the daughter of that film's late director, William Castle.
Worse films than this have been made about haunted houses--look at this summer's similar "The Haunting." In the new movie, Geoffrey Rush, playing the Vincent Price role, brings five people together in a spooky old house. He will pay $1 million each if they survive the night. Only "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Kattan, as the house's nervous owner, believes the place is truly haunted.
Thank goodness the filmmakers had the good sense not to take this stuff seriously. Rush, having a great time as the manipulative party mastermind, wears a very Price-like pencil-thin mustache and goes by the moniker Stephen Price. And Kattan manages to get a laugh out of just about everything he says or does. The other standout performer is the appealing Ali Larter ("Varsity Blues") as a plucky personal assistant who becomes the movie's putative heroine.
"House" sits squarely in the self-referential school of comedic horror, the kind popularized by Wes Craven's "Scream" movies. But as those films showed, clever in-jokes and ironic detachment will take you only so far. Sooner or later, the self-mocking tone falls off to be replaced by crude shocks and horror movie cliches.
Soon enough, it becomes clear how much this movie disrespects both the audience and the genre. How else to explain the filmmakers' decision to turn the house's evil into a single vaporous entity, a sort of Poltergeist Amalgamated that adds on new personalities as it kills? This way, the newly slain can crack one-liners as they help dispatch the other guests.
The movie's tones don't mesh, and the lengths to which it goes to rattle the audience border on obscene. The opening, for instance, quite explicitly shows sadistic medical experiments and fake newsreel footage of burned corpses that call to mind Nazi death camps. To deliberately evoke the specter of such true-to-life horrors in the service of this mindless schlock is a serious aesthetic misjudgment, and it's tasteless in more ways than one.
House on Haunted Hill, 1999. MPAA Rated: R for horror, violence and gore, sexual images and language. A Warner Bros. presentation of a Dark Castle Entertainment production. Director Damon William Malone. Producers Robert Zemekis, Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler. Executive Producers Dan Cracchiolo and Steve Richards. Story Robb White. Screenplay Dick Beebe. Cinematographer Rick Bota. Editor Anthony Adler. Production Designer David F. Klassen. Editor Anthony Adler. Music Don Davis. Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Geoffrey Rush as Stephen Price. Famke Janssen as Evelyn. Taye Diggs as Eddie. Ali Larter as Sara.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times