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Wednesday, November 3, 1999

House on Haunted Hill

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM

This remake of William Castle’s 1958 schlock shocker is a big-budget B movie: the horror film as spooky thrill ride. Which makes it perfectly fitting that Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) has made his substantial fortune safely scaring people in his theme parks (there’s a great scene where he serenely terrifies a skeptical television reporter and cameraman with his latest roller coaster).

Steven and his wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen), both master manipulators, are locked in a sadistic battle of wills, so her birthday party becomes another occasion to match wits. The couple has invited five guests to spend a spine-tingling night at the elaborate hillside residence that once housed the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane.

The inhuman experiments conducted there, not to mention the inferno that incinerated nearly everyone after a patient uprising, are not-so-subtle allusions to Nazi horrors (the house itself was modeled on the work of Third Reich architect Albert Speer). But that’s where the real terror of this House on Haunted Hill ends.

Director William Malone works in a few disturbing scenes of psychosexual torture that hint at the evil contained within "altruistic" humans, but then goes all out to create the cinematic equivalent of a Halloween haunted house. Here, a new shock is just around the corner and bad things come from an uncontrollable, supernatural force (beautifully rendered as an inky cloud).

It doesn’t help any that the party guests are generic types defined solely by their given attribute: heroic (Taye Diggs), spunky (Ali Larter), stupid (Bridgette Wilson), smug (Peter Gallagher) or scared (Chris Kattan).

House on Haunted Hill does have some nice touches, especially when it comments on the thin line between manufactured terror and the real thing. Too bad the movie itself is more the former than the later.

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