House on Haunted Hill {Remake}

Release Date: 1999

"More gross than scary... still an entertaining, halfway-decent fright flick, let down only by a cheesy ending ... don't expect a coherent plot or a convincing fright, or you'll be very disappointed."

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

October 11th, 1931, Los Angeles: a conflagration of biblical proportions incinerates nearly everything and everyone inside what was once the City of Angels' most celebrated medical facility - the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. But the secret this inferno burned free was far more frightening than any picture Hollywood could produce - a Sanitarium of Slaughter, supervised by a surgeon gone mad: Richard Benjamin Vannacutt...

From the moment we see Dr. Vannacutt {the incomparable Jeffrey Combs, Reanimator} cutting up one of his bound and gagged patients without anesthetic, while a nurse takes home movies of the whole affair, we know that this remake of the spooky - but safe - 1958 classic House on Haunted Hill is going to be anything but safe. And if that doesn't convince you, the bloody cataclysm that follows once the Doctor hits the lockdown switch, and the patients get their revenge, should make it clear we're not in the 50's anymore, Virginia. This film has teeth, tits and pencils through the neck.

However, for what the remake also has in the way of special effects, real ghosts, a substantial budget and a house that actually looks old - and seriously creepy in an art-deco gone wrong kind of way - it lacks in a clear, coherent plot. In that sense, the movie's a chip off of its predecessor, which was hampered from being convincing by the holes in its story. And as it wasn't very convincing, it wasn't very scary, either, except in a few, very memorable spots.

But for all the problems this remake has, it actually winds up being both slightly more entertaining, and scary, than the original. Some of these scares are courtesy of the jump-cut, MTV-inspired horror nuggets that are all the rage these days. However, there are some moments of genuine dread and fear, here, and while the very end of the movie might make you groan a bit, the climax is a real eye-popper.

So if you're in the mood for a good, honest freakout, and don't mind being visually {or verbally} assaulted along the way, then you might care to take a stroll through the new House on Haunted Hill.


Almost 70 years after the horrible disaster - which only left five alive - the Vannacutt Institute has been restored by the Pritchet family. However, no one wants to live there: it's said that the spirits of the doctor and his victims are still haunting the place, and the house is e-v-i-l. They even get Peter Graves to play himself and announce this, along with the fact that Vannacutt was one of the most prolific serial killers ever - outdoing both Bundy and Manson.

Of course, that makes it perfect for Evelyn Price {Famke Jensen, of the X-Men franchise} to have her birthday party there. She's married to Stephen Price {Geoffrey Rush, Pirates of the Caribbean}, who makes his living creating ghoulish themeparks and other such fun, and can't stand his wife. The feeling is, of course, mutual, which leads to some back-and-forth bitchery over the guest list for this little party of hers. She gives him hers, and he shreds it for one of his own, chuckling about how he's going to pull out all the stops...

Cut to the house, itself, and the guests being driven up in hearses, to the tune of Marilyn Manson's cover of Sweet Dreams. We have Dr. Blackburn {Peter Gallagher, American Beauty}, Eddie Baker {Taye Diggs, Equilibrium}, Sara Wolfe {Ali Larter, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back} and Melissa Marr {Bridgette Wilson, Mortal Kombat}.

{And just so you know, you might have read that Lisa Loeb the Singer, and James Marsters the Vampire, appear in this film. They're not any of the big-bill guests, unfortunately, and their time on screen is pretty darn short. So don't foot the bill for this flick if you're just wanting to see either of them.}

The four guests are met at the gate by nervous and nerdy Watson Pritchet {Chris Kattan, Any Given Wednesday}, who just wants to get them up to the house, get his rental check and get the hell out of there. This makes for a nervous introduction - especially when Evelyn shows up and has no idea who any of them are. And once Mr. Price shows up, one "amusing" gag later, the confusion is doubled, as he doesn't know who any of them are, either.

The good news is that the party is loaded - literally. Each person there can have one million dollars if they last through the night, and if anyone should... well... die before morning, the survivors get to split the check. There's even guns, in tiny black coffins, just for their protection. {And a sandwich-stuffing special effects guy in the basement, who's armed with a ton of gags, and hired by Price to help make the occasion a memorable one.}

Pritchet isn't having any of this shit, though: he wants his money, and wants it now now NOW! Of course, he gets it, but only seconds before Vannacutt's wheels-and-gears lockdown procedure is activated. Within a minute, the house is locked up so tight that none can escape. Which is about when Pritchet loses his nerve and starts letting on that, yes, this house really is haunted, and they're all gonna die.

The bad news is that cell phones won't work in the house, and there's no phone to the outside, either. Apparently, the caretakers will be back in the morning, but who wants to wait that long? As Eddie puts it, a million dollars is no good if you're dead.

Trying to find a way out leads to an unadvised jaunt into the basement, and our first encounter with something awful. Once the fool who went ahead of the party is rescued, and everyone's back upstairs, they discovers that someone else has gone off to the basement, too. And while she's down there, she sees... something, and that something sees her back, leading to her screaming disappearance, and possible demise...

Of course, this leads to Pritchet going on a bender and babbling about "the Darkness" that lives in the house, and how they're all really, really dead. It also leads to everyone blaming Price for what just happened. But Price gets a shock of his own: his special effects guy is dead, and he sees someone who looks an awful lot like Dr. Vannacutt stomp-marching through the halls, big-ass knife in hand.

In the confusion of everyone either looking for Vannacutt, the missing guest, the way out, or some more booze, Evelyn disappears from her room. She then appears downstairs on an electroshock bed, and is fried by the current before anyone can do anything.

Price picks this moment to flip out, and demand answers at gunpoint. He gets knocked down and out by Eddie before he can do anything rash, and they toss him into one of Vannacutt's stranger machines while they try to find the missing guest, the way out, or more booze...

Right about here is where this movie makes a serious, double detour into "huh?" territory, but there's enough serious thrills and gory chills to keep the lack of a coherent narrative from ruining the rest of the film. And as the climax rattles on, it sees the party whittled down, one by one, as The Darkness rises and comes after the survivors.

It does not, thankfully, break into "A Thing Called Love."


The Gen

I don't want to compare this movie to its original all that much, as I think every movie has to stand on its own. That said, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the poor dialogue, and how downright unlikable just about every character was, when compared to the original.

Part of the charm of the 1958 version was the hammy charisma of Vincent Price, who carried the movie - plot holes and all - with a careful balance between ghoulish fun, urbane menace and genteel decency. But there's no sense of real character from any of the players in the remake: instead, we get assholes that have us either cheering on their deaths, or not caring when they go. Even Geoffrey Rush gives a muddled questionmark of a performance, leaving us as unsure of Price's true feelings or motives as we are of the plot twists.

But this is not a character-driven film, and we aren't really here to root for anyone, either. We're here to watch people die or survive against impossible, supernatural odds, as though it were a slasher film. And once you get over that hurdle, and stop comparing it to the original, House on Haunted Hill isn't a terrible movie after all.

Yes, the plot is convoluted, and we have no real idea of who planned what. Yes, the gore is gratuitous and some things were done that didn't need to be done at all. Yes, we're bombarded by horror-nuggets and visual frights that may or may not have much to do with anything, other than the Director saying "give me something really sick and gross right here, Charlie."

But what were you really expecting? If you came to watch a halfway-decent ghost flick, you will not be terribly disappointed, and may even be inspired.


WOD/Wraith-Friendly Content

Oh man, where do I start? This film practically bleeds out with great visual cues and ideas for the game.

For starters, the institute is wonderful. Unlike the Frank Lloyd Wright number from the original, this place actually looks like it was made way back when, both inside and out. Some bits are kind of silly, like the stained glass ceiling from the Middle Ages {yeah, right}, but once we get down into the basement, things pick up.

Also of interest is the Immersion Tank, in which madmen were "made sane" by exposing them to the sort of things that would make a sane man mad. Anything Dr. Vannacutt might have done is highly suspect, of course, but its use leads to a very interesting sight for its victim.

As for the Arcanoi, we get Embody, Pandemonium, Outrage and what could be Phantasm. We also get an interesting riff on the idea that ghosts don't show up on modern recording devices, and a house that seems able to swallow people whole once it's laid claim to them.

There is also The Darkness, itself. Some have complained that, when It rears Its ugly head, the movie's climax goes straight downhill and doesn't come back up again. I disagree, and while I wouldn't have done everything that they did with It, the appearance is a bang-on idea. Take the idea of a group entity and mix it with Embody on speed, or straight-up Pandemonium, and you have... well, whatever that was.


The Final Cut

"Funny old house, innit?"

More gross than scary, the remake of House on Haunted Hill is still an entertaining, halfway-decent fright flick, let down only by a cheesy ending. It should be of interest to Storytellers in search of inspiration, but don't expect a coherent plot or a convincing fright, or you'll be very disappointed. It's worth 2 1/2 skulls for good ideas and the occasional good, freaky moment.


The official website of the movie (beware of sound!)

Reviews on the Wraith Project are the opinions of those reviewers, and are not necessarily those of the Wraith Project themselves. If you disagree with this review, send in another one. If you still feel like strangling the reviewer, see an analyst.