- Year: 1999
- Director: William Malone
- Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs
Sometimes a film is such a classic, so perfect in every way, that you wonder why anyone would even think to remake it. Other times, like today’s example, a film may be a cult classic, but since it doesn’t have mainstream appeal, remaking it makes a lot of sense. 1959’s House on Haunted Hill is essentially the cinematic version of a haunted house ride—campy, atmospheric, loads of fun, and with just the right number of actual scares to make it worthwhile. Vincent Price relishes the lead role of Frederick Loren, and producer William Castle mixes the horror and the comedy perfectly. Plus, like a haunted house ride, it’s short. It’s only 75 minutes long, and it’s in the public domain, so you can check it out for free at any time.
In the 1959 film, eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) offer $10,000 to five guests if they can survive a whole night in a haunted house. As the night goes on it’s revealed that one of them is Annabelle’s lover who is conspiring with her to kill Frederick, but the other four are there for honest reasons. In the 1999 film, weird (eccentric is too kind) millionaire Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) offers five guests $1,000,000 if they can spend the night in an abandoned mental hospital where a doctor went on a killing spree years ago.
Alright so I understand adjusting the prize for inflation, but according to the American Institute for Economic Research Cost of Inflation calculator, $10,000 in 1959 came to about $57,000 in 1999. Here’s a good rule to go by. If an eccentric millionaire is willing to put up $50,000 to spend a night in a haunted house, he’s clearly just having some fun. If he puts up ONE MILLION DOLLARS, it’s too good to be true and you should run the other way.
Also, I have to mention the title. It’s not even a house! It’s a mental hospital. I get changing things but it’s good to make sure that the House on Haunted Hill is actually a house!
Now, it’s not like 1959 film is perfect. The cast of the original is not amazing all around, and honestly, there’s only one memorable character besides Vincent Price, and that’s Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr.)
Pritchard is the owner of the house, and a firm believer in ghosts. By the end of the film, we’re still not sure if the ghosts are real or not, but Pritchard remains the same. The other actors are fine, but no one stands out. It says it all that every time I watch the film, I forget which of the other two male characters Annabelle is cheating with.
In the remake, I’m convinced that the casting director just started throwing darts at a dartboard of mid-level ’90s character actors and took what stuck.
As Price’s wife Evelyn: Famke Jannsen.
As Eddie: Taye Diggs
As Sara Wolfe (posing as Jennifer Jensen): Ali Larter.
As Dr. Donald Blackburn: A set of eyebrows with Peter Gallagher attached.
As Watson Pritchard: Ugh. Why? Chris Kattan.
The character is as fearful as in the original film, but what came across as a sympathetic character there just comes across as annoying here. Maybe it’s because he’s constantly making fun of the other guests, turning him into that party guest no one can stand.
There’s also a random cameo by Lisa Loeb as a reporter who interviews Price at his amusement park.
I know this a movie where ghosts form a spiritual ooze and go after guests staying in a haunted asylum, but I need to nitpick here. You shouldn’t wear glasses on a roller coaster! They usually ask you take them off as it starts. This is just common sense.
This film on the whole was not particularly well-received, but the one aspect that got a lot of praise was Geoffrey Rush’s performance. While his heart is clearly in it, I have to say that I just cannot stand this character.
The name is clearly a shout-out to Vincent Price, and the appearance is at least an attempt (with perhaps a dash of Walt Disney thrown in), but instead of looking like the debonair horror actor, Geoffrey Rush just looks like a creep with that mustache. That aside, I’m not quite sure what he’s going for with the voice. Maybe he’s trying and failing for a Vincent Price emulation, but it just comes off sounding like James Woods, which is not going to endear you to audiences.
In the original, we’re led to believe that Frederick Loren is evil, but we then learn that his wife has been trying to kill him. He still had three previous wives die (the current wife claims under mysterious circumstances), and he still doesn’t come off as squeaky clean, but there’s just the right amount of charm that we like the guy.
In the remake, Steven Price’s wife is still trying to kill him, and he’s trying to kill her, but frankly we don’t know who started it, and they both just come off as horrible. If the other characters were likable, I’d be fine with this, but they’re really not. In what could have been an interesting twist, both Prices assume the other one made the guest list. This could have led to an interesting reveal that in fact neither of them did and there are definite supernatural forces at work. Instead, the movie decides to reveal it in the opening scenes with, and I cannot make this up, a self-typing computer.
I am going to be super generous and say maybe this could have worked if it was an old-fashioned typewriter and we saw the keys being hit slowly one at a time. Instead, we just see words appearing on a screen. How riveting. This is the ultimate in 1999 terror, folks—words appearing on a screen.
None of the guests invited to the house are all that interesting, except Peter Gallagher simply on the basis of being Peter Gallagher. His character is the one having an affair with Price’s wife, but at least he brings a certain gravitas to the role. I just guess that between this and American Beauty, 1999 was the year his characters had affairs with the wives of creeps.
In fact, the other characters are so bland that I’m not sure if these are two different characters or just a ghostly mirror image.
In the original, everyone willingly decides to stay in the house for the night. In this one, they come there willingly, but Pritchard wants to leave. As he’s about to leave, the doors close, meaning the rest of the movie is spent searching for an exit. Again… riveting stuff. That’s one thing I loved about the original and to a greater extent The Haunting—These people are entering a haunted house willingly! Explore that angle, please. There is fun to be had there.
Instead, the movie just kills the characters off when they’re tired of them I guess. Sara, the blonde on the left in the above picture, gets drowned by a ghost in blood. Again, if they had gone for a mix of campy and scary, this kind of thing could have worked, but it plays the material too straight. Evelyn seems to be killed by an old electroshock therapy machine, and everyone tries to stop it while Price just stands there yelling at them to stop it. Maybe do something yourself!
We of course learn that the second-billed star in this thing faked her own death, and she and Dr. Eyebrows reveal their plan to kill Price in an exposition-heavy scene. However, out of absolutely nowhere, she kills Dr. Eyebrows instead.
We get no reason for this, and it’s not explained afterwards. I could see maybe trying to frame him for the deaths if you’re not really in love with him, but why just randomly add another dead body? It makes no sense.
Meanwhile, Eddie and Sarah discover a picture of the doctors who worked at the hospital at the time of the massacre. They realize that the five doctors who survived are all ancestors of the guests at the party, which they act surprised by but literally no one should have been surprised by. Hey, here’s an idea. When there are five people who survived a massacre, and five people are invited to a party at that location and supernatural things start happening, maybe just maybe something is up. Sure, they discover that Dr. Eyebrows has no relative on the picture (Evelyn invited him), but Price does a relative there, so that’s still five.
Price then takes a page from Evelyn’s playbook and fakes his death, and when she walks over to his seemingly-dead body, she begins to monologue. Why would you anyone monologue to a dead body? Maybe just get out of there. It’s clearly only for the audience’s benefit. He then comes to life and throws her into a room where the ghosts eventually reveal themselves and kill her.
It’s never explained why the ghosts take this physical form, and I’m pretty sure the screenwriters just made this up to kill off people quickly. If ghosts are just being creepy and below the surface, you can’t kill people like a slasher. After Evelyn’s death, Price begins pounding on the door with Eddie, Sarah and Pritchard on the other side. Since they know the ghosts are behind him, Eddie and Sarah refuse, but Pritchard feels bad and opens the door, getting killed instead of Price. It’s out of nowhere and pretty hilarious.
Price, Eddie and Sarah run up to the exit in the attic while the ghost horde (What am I supposed to call it?) chases them, with Price sacrificing himself so Eddie and Sarah can get to the window for an exit. I think the movie is suggesting that Sarah survives because since she’s not Jennifer Jensen, she’s not related. Meanwhile, Eddie screams “I’m adopted,” which I’m sure is logic the ghosts will listen to. Anyway, they do get to safety, but it’s on a ledge hundreds of feet up overlooking the ocean. A ghost pushes out the five one-million-dollar checks made out to cash, but they do have to get out of there first. I suppose someone will come eventually, but this is where we leave them.
Well let’s take a look at how this compares to the original.
The original has Vincent Price. The remake does not. Do I need to say more? There are plenty of cast members in the remake that I like in other things, but they have nothing to work with here. Peter Gallagher is at least trying, but his character unmercifully exits the film far too early.
By expanding the story, the film only serves to only make it more confusing. I love how the ghosts were ambiguously real in the original, but the remake takes all the plot points from the original and adds more for good measure, including an over-complicated backstory. It doesn’t work.
I’ll give a few points here as some effects are solid. Price has an assistant (obvious cannon-fodder) who is revealed to have had his face torn off, and it’s a pretty good effect. That said, the house is just kind of gray and brown and not that creepy, while the original is a classic haunted house (although it’s not as traditional looking on the outside). There was so much potential for a remake, and so little is lived up to.
This is a pretty worthless remake. I’m sure it has its fans, but it just gets lazier as it goes on.