Rated R - Running Time: 1:55 - Released 10/29/99

The title of The House On Haunted Hill is not the only similarity it shares with July's The Haunting (the novel of which was titled The Haunting Of Hill House). Both are re-makes of earlier films, and I couldn't help noticing that the production values are similar, too. Both movies start out rather creepy, but ultimately fail to scare because of special-effects overkill. Horror director William Malone (TV's Perversions of Science), instead of asking his actors to show us how scary the "house" is, asks his digi-graphics crews to do so. The result is an excellent show of digi-graphics. But it is seldom scary.

Written by Dick Beebe (who also penned the screenplay for the 1958 version), the story focuses on a handful of people who are invited to take a challenge. If they can survive one night in a haunted house (actually, in this version it's a former insane asylum), they will each receive one million dollars. The host, who sends the invitations and offers the money, is amusement park tycoon Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush). His wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen) is celebrating her birthday, and this is his present to her. But the people who show up are not the ones invited by Steven and Evelyn. Former ball player Eddie (Taye Diggs), executive Sara (Ali Larter), TV game show producer Melissa (Bridgette Wilson), and physician Dr. Blackburn (Peter Gallagher) were all invited by The House. It has a score to settle with them.

As we learn from Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), grandson of The House's architect, The House has a mind of its own. It is filled with the tortured souls of the criminally insane who used to occupy the place in the 1930s and also by the evil Doctor Vannacutt and his staff. The story goes that Vannacutt, pre-dating Dr. Mengele by 10 years, tortured the unfortunate inmates, subjecting them to crude, outdated procedures, experimenting on them with no anesthesia, etc. Eventually, the patients rose up and rioted, resulting in a fire that killed all. The House's spectral inhabitants remember this horrific history, and seek revenge on those poor suckers who are descended from Vannacutt's staff. At the beginning, the guests are all skeptical except Pritchett, who knows what The House is capable of. Before it's over, they are all believers (even if we are not).

There are two factors which save The House On Haunted Hill from being utterly mediocre: Rush and Kattan. Price and his Mrs. have a beautifully antagonistic relationship that reminds one of Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn in The Lion In Winter. Price is sure his wife is plotting to kill him; she has the same suspicions about him. So, while maintaining the polite demeanor that results from good breeding, the Prices exchange barbs and dodge murder attempts. Meanwhile, Kattan is humorously pessimistic as Pritchett. "Don't you get it?" he keeps asking, with impatient resignation. "We're all going to die. It's The House."

The House, which is really not a house at all but a huge, Art Deco-style institution built on the side of a mountain, is adequately creepy, with dark basement passageways that our thrill-seekers revisit again and again. As usual in horror movies, there are many instances where people willfully walk alone into dark, dangerous places, lingering stupefied to watch as the menace approaches. But as we near the climax, like in The Haunting, the effects computers take over and ruin any chance at true horror. ***

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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