House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Joel Silver, along with Robert Zemeckis and director William Malone, has started a new movie company called Dark Castle, dedicated to remaking the films of that notorious showman, William Castle. Dark Castle's first release is a 1999 remake of 1958's House on Haunted Hill.

The idea of remaking at least one of Castle's films is understandable. Castle was the larger-than-life director and producer whose colorful promotional gimmicks were often better than the movies they supported. Silver has packaged some real stinkers in his day, so he may imagine himself to be Castle's successor. But Silver and his ilk are fooling themselves. To abuse a metaphor, Castle over-sold the sizzle because he didn't really have any steak. Silver is selling genuine Meat Food Products, but let's face it: they're not the choicest bits of the cow.

Apparently House on Haunted Hill did well enough to convince Silver et al. that Dark Castle is a viable franchise. Remakes of Macabre and 13 Ghosts are on the way. I suppose they're running out of vintage themes to ruin... Anyway, in view of my reactions to House on Haunted Hill -- initially mixed but approving, gradually turning sour the more I thought about it -- I'm not sure how I feel about the whole enterprise. To give you some idea of the conflicted opinions I have of House..., it's taken me over six months to complete this review. And I still don't think it's finished to my satisfaction.

The house itself is the first "character" we see. The House in William Castle's original was a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and it stood out for two reasons: first, it was phenomenally ugly, especially in the manner in which Castle's camera captured it; and second, it seemed the least likely setting for a ghost story that anyone could possibly imagine. Far from being a creaky Gothic mansion, Castle's House looked more like a modern elementary school with delusions of grandeur. It was long and rectangular and low to the ground, like a bunker. The new, utterly different House is all verticals, tall and thin and perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. The difference is astonishing, and in this aspect the remake gains hugely over the original.

As the movie opens, it's 1931, and the House isn't a house yet. It's a mental institution, in which demented Doctor Kurt Vonnegut -- er, excuse me, Richard Vannicutt - commits horrible crimes in the name of "treatment". In the perfunctory, wordless prologue, the inmates take control of the institution, and wreak bloody retribution on the Doctor and his accomplices. The prologue is the "dumb-show" that gives us the key to how the rest of the film will be played. When the camera gives us loving close-ups of a Number 2 pencil being sharpened, we have no doubt that the pencil will soon be jammed into something squishy. The action is oddly balletic, and totally without logic. Why is the doctor performing atrocities? Why are the nurses helping him with his vile experiment, and in particular, why is one of them filming it? How did the inmates escape? We don't know, and it doesn't matter: the point of it all is that by the end of the sequence, the loonies have taken control of the camera -- a perfect metaphor for the way the rest of the movie unfolds.

The flashback footage melds into a newsreel account of the massacre, about which I will have more to say at the end of this review.

The scene switches to the present, and we're introduced to the main members of the cast. First, we're introduced to the living troublemakers of the flick: Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Price. As Stephen, Geoffrey Rush is made up to look very much like Vincent Price, after whom his character is named (according to the director, Rush based his interpretation of the character on John Waters rather than Price, but apparently when you stick Geoffrey Rush in a John Waters suit, you get Vincent Price). This Mr. Price is a famous designer of theme-park thrill rides, to which movies of this sort are invariably compared. House actually begins with a filmed roller-coaster ride: the movie winks at the audience, acknowledging what we've come for.

The lesson of the theme-park scenes is that we shouldn't accept anything we see at face value. We will expect Price to have booby-trapped his party, and in fact he has a technician hidden somewhere who is ostensibly providing some of the scares. It later turns out, as in the original, that Mrs. Price is also doing her share of fake hauntings, although with deadlier intent. However, there are two problems here: first, it's never adequately explained just how much of the activity at the house is being stage-managed by Price, to the point that we have to assume that his part of the show hadn't even started before the real ghosties showed up. When he finds his technician murdered in a particularly unlikely fashion, Price forgets about this singularly shocking event, and nothing is mentioned of it ever again (though the resemblance between the hole in the technician's head and the shape of a TV screen occurred to me). The next problem is the extreme cold-bloodedness of Mrs. Price. That she would do such things is believable... it's the ease and the attitude with which she commits her crimes that reduce her to cartoon status. She's far too sure a hand at atrocity for us to have any sympathy for her at all.

Mrs. Price has assembled a guest list for her birthday party, which she wants to hold in the House because of its horrible history. Price assents to the idea, but secretly replaces her guest list with his own, intended to cause her the greatest humiliation. Unknown to both of them, the House's malevolent presence has worked out TCP/IP (does it even have working phone service? Zheesh), has bypassed any security measures Price may have resident on his server, and edited his invitation list... then sent that list out to be dealt with by the printers and, I suppose, the Mail Room without Price's awareness.

Uh, yeah.

So the invitations go out (evidently with no RSVP, or the plot would be foiled) to a passel of (apparent) strangers. Lured by the promise of a million dollars each if they manage to survive the night, these four people prove that the House has spent the past sixty-eight years watching bad horror movies. True, this time the Token Black Dude is actually the hero this time, not the first to die; and the female lead is a tough and independent woman instead of an ornament for the hero. If you think this means anything at all, I've got eight words for you: Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Alien, 1979. Compare a fully-developed black lead played thirty years previously, and a strong, independent heroine from a movie made twenty years before, and you'll see that nothing even remotely progressive is being done with these characters.

This is a movie which, however superficially, concerns itself with violent madness. Coincidentally, the movie itself seems to be made up of violently conflicted multiple personalities.

On the one hand, seems to be very well aware of its origins, and alternates between homage and parody of its cheerfully stupid sub-genre. Geoffrey Rush's "Stephen Price", with his echos of John Waters and Vincent Price, is a walking catalog of Z-movie references. The gathering of the usual suspects, and the hoary old device of the Inescapable Building are intentionally familiar, though I think they weren't carried far enough to make their satirical point. A dream-sequence later in the film fades the film to black and white, interrupted by torrents of bright red blood... This is a reference to an equally pointless (but fun) sequence in another Castle film, The Tingler.

On the other hand,
...House plays some of its goofiest cliches totally straight. The exposition of the characters, for example, is even lamer than usual for an old-dark-house chiller, with the actors practically reading off lists of their characters' motivations. True: the original didn't handle the exposition particularly well, either. We had a montage of floating heads around a still frame of the House, introducing themselves and setting the stage for the story to begin immediately. Considering all the tongue-in-cheek references to the original, and to similar movies from grades B through Z, you'd think the new House could have played this sort of thing for laughs. But at this point, the movie's wry self-awareness disappears, at precisely the point where it's needed most. The apparent lack of irony is jarring.

On a distressing third hand,
...House on Haunted Hill toys with issues that are far too disturbing to be taken lightly - mental illness is an obvious example, but there are others as well. Far from commenting meaningfully on any of these issues, however, House refuses even to acknowledge them head on.

The introductions of the party guests are left incomplete, in a sort of shorthand. The movie expects us to know the types so well that we don't need to hear the rest of their exposition. Why is Taye Diggs' baseball player an ex-baseball player? What was the television show Melissa Margaret Marr was host of, and why did she get canned? The only character who ever had a shot at extra dimensions is "Jennifer Jenzen", played by Ali Larter. In keeping with the theme that nobody and nothing are what they seem to be, "Jennifer" is not really "Jennifer" at all, but Sara, her recently-fired secretary, who took the million-dollar invitation as a sort of unofficial severance pay. Deleted footage included with the DVD gives us some more of her back-story -- and thank God it was cut, because the scenes were atrocious. Ali Larter is fine as the steely-eyed woman of action once the adrenaline starts pumping, but put her in a normal conversation and she's hopeless.

The DVD also supplies (through the director's comments) plenty of back story on Chris Kattan's character: Watson Pritchett, the man who owns the House. Pritchett's a wreck, but we never really understand why he's in such bad shaps. He can't have been living in the hose, or it would certainly have killed him long ago. So how did he get to know so much about it, and why is he such a basket case?

Where all Pritchett's material went, and why it was never included in any of the pre-release versions of the film, is another of this movies frustrating mysteries. Nowhere is it explained, except in the commentary, that Kattan's Pritchett lives in his car, because he can neither afford the taxes nor the upkeep on the House. We never find out that his father had died mysteriously while trying to block off part of the cellar, though this would explain the half-finished wall and Pritchett's nervous remark that he's never been to that part of the house.

This was stuff we needed to know! Kattan is sort of a John Ritter for the new millennium, annoying and endearing in equal measure. Regrettably, audiences ended up laughing at him in this movie for all the wrong reasons, and I really don't think it's the fault of his performance. His appearance at the end as a deus ex machina makes no sense without more information on his character.

Heck, if they needed more time, they could easily have done without Melissa Margaret Marr as a character. They could have simply cut all her scenes and replaced them with Pritchett's back story. The film would have been much improved. However, the film makers seem more intent on providing meat for the carving than meat for their story. There should also have been time in the finished cut for the zombie attack sequence, which is also included in the DVD. Keeping the zombies would have shut up some of the critics who complained about the wimpiness of the film's real monster, which called "calamari". In a time of ridiculously inflated two- to three-hour Summer Spectaculars (Godzilla, The Haunting, Armageddon et. al.), Malone's and the producer's zeal to keep the picture down to 90 minutes -- at any cost to the film's integrity -- is mind-boggling.

And thinking of the monster: a lot of people complained about the eventual shape of the monster-ghost when it breaks out of its flimsy containment at the movie's end. (I'm more upset about the idea that a thin wall could restrain the force within the house, yet not prevent it from accessing Price's computer over the Internet... ) Actually, the shape of the monster is pretty predictable: it's an enormous floating Rorschach test. Since the famous ink-blot test is designed to reflect the inner thoughts of the observer, we must conclude that the film maker is trying to make some sort of statement about the nature of evil. Look into the ink blot, says the movie, and you will see yourselves there. Except we don't, because we have no idea what we're supposed to be seeing.

If this malevolent, amoral force which haunts the house is the controlling spirit of Doctor Vannacutt, then why is the doctor's character left completely undeveloped? Why do we never learn anything about his motivations for performing the ghastly experiments? Why is this dark presence seeking revenge on the descendants of the original staff, if the rest of the original staff is part of the soul of the thing? Are they jealous that they escaped? If, more convincingly, the force is the collected fury of hundreds of mental patients seeking their revenge, then why is the hated Dr. Vannacutt still among them? How is it this thing can act so rationally in planning its victims' fates? (To the movie's credit, when the heroine begins the inevitable "explanation" of how the House must have used its energies to travel through the phone lines into Price's computer, the hero orders her to shut up before she can finish.)

Again, we're supposed to fill in the blanks in this movie with lessons we've learned from other movies. Perhaps the force is like Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, or the Lord of the Dead in Chinese Ghost Story, more powerful as a spirit than in the flesh, and able to control the ghosts of those it has destroyed. Yeah, maybe. But I don't want to have to do the movie makers' work for them, so I say it's just not explained.

Then, are we supposed to see ourselves in the grasping, venal characters whose faces ripple the surface of the thing? Why should we? It's not as though their deaths were as a direct consequence of their actions. Unfortunately, the human side of the story is almost completely separate from the supernatural component, so there's no sense of tragedy, or inevitability, or any kind of conclusion to be drawn. The characters died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's that. What they did to get there is of no importance, either to us or to the hungry monster.

So what do we take away from us with the end of the film? Let's take stock:

  1. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Actually, it seems they're visited upon the sons by the fathers, in the form of a huge hungry blob.
  2. According to the film, insanity apparently equals evil. This is terrible equation, no matter how you look at it.
  3. At a certain point in obsession, it becomes impossible to distinguish the oppressed from the oppressor. Actually, this is a very charitable wording of the impression I got from the film, which to be honest runs more like this: the oppressed are likely to become the mindless, soulless tools of the oppressor.

You know, I'm starting to like this movie less and less the more I think about it. And I haven't even mentioned my biggest problem with the movie yet...

After the credits, the movie closes with a recap of the footage shot by the rebelling inmates. This time, instead of Vannacutt and his wife being mutilated on the operating table, we see Price and his wife. OK, it's a cute gimmick, to imagine them stuck beyond time in this terrible Hell, but the more you think about this, the less sense it makes. Mrs. Price? Sure, that I can see; she's as much of a heartless butcher as Vannacutt. But Price himself? He's really nothing more than an arrogant toymaker. He's no Vannacutt. Why he's taken the place of a real monster, I can not understand.

But this set of images brings me back to what I consider the worst, least excusable part of this movie. It has to do (mostly) with the introduction and newsreel footage. That footage went from the scenes of the riot to the aftermath, and the subsequent discovery that Vannacutt was possibly "the worst mass murderer in history". Of course, seeing the newsreel footage of charred bodies makes us think of the real mass-murderer of the 20th century, and wonder how the director has the nerve to call up such memories. Sure, this is supposed to be happening in 1931, before the horrors of Nazism were fully unleashed; but you can't call up these images and expect a late-20th-century/early-21st-century audience to accept them at face value. We see these things, and we immediately think: Hitler. Mengele. Who do these movie makers think they are, to conjure up such images in a cheap horror movie?

The director's commentary in the DVD adds to this uncomfortable feeling, as Malone explains the style of the house was meant to suggest the style of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect. As the movie goes on, we see the house is full of wicked-looking torture devices, and the door to the room in which Vannacutt was performing a vivisection at the time of the riot is marked "Hygiene". This calls up still more echoes of the Nazi camps, where the "hygienic" cleansing rooms were actually execution chambers. We also see stenciled warnings in German on the walls of the cellar. Now, during the pre-war 30's, German construction materials were used in many buildings, which explains why the infrastructures of some very famous buildings are festooned with swastikas. Still: if there wasn't supposed to be some sort of connection to the horrors of the Holocaust, what are all these disturbing hints for? Malone makes no further reference to them in his commentary after he drops the name of Speer.

These are far too powerful images to be taken lightly. And it's the unexplained references to such images that leaves me, in the end, unwilling and unable to recommend this average thriller to anybody.

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