“House on Haunted Hill” is a favorite of mine, although I don’t often like to admit it. It’s slick, mindless, and has a number of good sequences that makes your skin crawl. It’s a standard horror film and uses all the conventions of horror films made in the ’90s — cheap scares, loud pounding music, and cardboard-thin characters.
Directed by William Malone, who handles the visuals like a champ, “Hill” is based on an old Vincent Price movie. (The film calls one of its characters Steven Price as an homage to the horror legend.) Unfortunately for “Hill,” it came out during a time when Hollywood was going remake crazy, dusting off every old black and white Hollywood horror film they could find and turning them into slick (and mindless) ’90s versions. There were “13 Ghosts,” “The Haunting,” and a number of others. “Hill,” I believe, is one of the better ones, although that isn’t saying much considering the company it keeps.
The best thing “Hill” has going for it is the glossy big-budget Hollywood look that turns the haunted house of the title into another character. The house looks great, and director Malone and cinematographer Rick Bota lights the endless corridors, cobwebbed rooms, and inmate cellblocks with great flair. The house is not actually a house, but an old mental institution for the criminally insane that was closed after a bloody, unspeakable incident years ago. Re-opened again, its “spirit” comes alive to take revenge. I think.
The film opens with horrormeister Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) trying to please his estranged wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen) by setting up her birthday party at the former asylum. Evelyn wants to invite her friends, but Price has other ideas. As it turns out, something interferes and invites 5 strangers that neither Price nor Evelyn knows. All five are linked, although they don’t know it. No sooner does the strangers arrive at the house does things begin to go awry. Metal bars seal the doors and windows, trapping the group inside the house, and that’s when things start to really go wrong…
The weakest element of the film is Famke Janssen and Rush’s marriage couple. They are, to be frank, annoying. Dick Beebe’s screenplay tells (and shows us, over and over again) that the couple is not only estranged, but hates each other’s guts. They have apparently been trying to kill each other in one way or another since they said their vows, and the “game” at the haunted house is just another twist. It could be the case that the couple is the only two people in California who has never heard of divorce, or perhaps they like needling and trying to kill each other (a sort of perverted thrill, if you will), but that doesn’t mean we have to like being forced to live with their irritating banter for most of the movie.
There is really no one in “Hill” worth rooting for. Taye Diggs (“New Best Friend”) plays an ex-athlete who runs around hitting on the comely Ali Larter, but otherwise fails to convince me (again) that he knows how to act. Even the talented Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) is wasted here, and his unrelenting, petty bickering with Famke Janssen never fails to bring the film down from the high it achieves (in intervals) with its spooky visuals. The only one who makes an impression is former “SNL”er Chris Kattan, who plays a neurotic who knows what’s going on, although no one cares to listen. (In fact, everyone in the film abuses Kattan.)
Which brings us to “Hill”‘s ending, a special effects-laden sequence that completely tears down all the atmosphere and spooky vibe the film had built up. To say that the whole thing is laughable would be an understatement. It’s probably the worst ending in any horror film I’ve seen in a while, mostly because it is devoid of any thrills or frights. After all that’s taken place, we’re supposed to be scared of a cgi cloud? I think not!
“House on Haunted Hill” is certainly not the best of the bunch, but it’s not the worst one, either. It survives by way of its excellent visual treats, but dies by way of everything else.
William Malone (director) / Robb White (story), Dick Beebe (screenplay)
CAST: Geoffrey Rush …. Steven H. Price
Famke Janssen …. Evelyn
Ali Larter …. Sara Wolfe
Taye Diggs …. Eddie Baker
Chris Kattan …. Watson Pritchett