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Face-Off: The Haunting 1999 vs. House on Haunted Hill 1999

2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of two horror movies that happen to be about people being invited into haunted houses, with spirits manipulating the guest list. Both of these movies happen to be remakes as well (or some may prefer to call one of them a "new adaptation"). First is director Jan de Bont's THE HAUNTING, which was based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, a novel that had previously served as the basis of a film in 1963. The other is director William Malone's remake of William Castle's 1959 film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Which has a title so similar to the title of Jackson's novel that people have been getting them mixed up for sixty years. But our focus today isn't on the stories that are sixty years old, it's on the movies that are twenty years old, and before 2019 comes to an end we need to have THE HAUNTING 1999 and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 1999 Face-Off.

SPOOKY BACK STORY

The isolated mansion known as Hill House was built by Hugh Crain in the mid-1800s. Crain made his fortune running textile mills, and the legend is that he wanted a house filled with the laughter of children. Sadly, all of the children Crain and his wife Rene had died at birth. Rene committed suicide, and Crain became a recluse, endlessly adding rooms to his mansion. The legend isn't quite right; Crain enjoyed having a house filled with the screams of children. He would bring home child workers from his mills and trap them in his mansion, killing them and burning their bodies in the fireplace. That could have been the making of a good haunted house movie, if only THE HAUNTING didn't handle it in such a laughable way.

Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt used to conduct torturous, deadly experiments on the patients under his care at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. In 1931, the patients rose up and took violent revenge against the staff... but unfortunately, Vanncutt threw the lockdown switch before he was killed, so patients and staff died together in the fire that consumed the building. Now the still-homicidal spirit of Vanncutt roams the halls of the restored building, along with other evil beings that his sick and twisted acts have drawn to the location. A haunted asylum is creepy enough, but this film takes it even further by making the head doctor a monster.

HOUSE OF THE DEAD

The best thing that this version of THE HAUNTING has going for it is the house that it's set in. Hill House is ridiculously huge. Characters move through massive areas, open giant doors, and hang out in rooms that have intricate wood carvings all over the walls. There's a towering fireplace, a fountain with a large statue in it, a crumbling spiral staircase. There's even a hallway that looks like a stream where the stepping stones are books. This was a monumental task for production designer Eugenio Zanetti, and he did an incredible job with it.

The title location is a very interesting looking place, built not just on the edge of the cliff but also down the side of the cliff. The interior was restored and turned into a home after the 1931 fire, but the place's mental institution origins are still apparent at every turn. It still looks like an asylum, it just happens to have more furniture in it now. In the cellar, there's still even a functioning electro-shock set-up and a saturation chamber. It's dirty and gross, the restoration job really didn't do much for it.

LIVING VISITORS

Liam Neeson wasn't given much to do in the role of Dr. David Marrow, who gathers three volunteers together in the reportedly haunted Hill House under the pretense of doing a psychological study on people with insomnia. He has actually brought them to this creepy place to research group fear and hysteria. Hill House manages to scare his test subjects more than he intended. Those test subjects are good natured Nell (Lili Taylor), bisexual party girl Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Owen Wilson as a guy who's called Luke, but it's basically Wilson playing himself. None of these characters manage to be interesting to spend time with. They're poorly written and kind of annoying.

Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen seem to be enjoying themselves playing the wealthy Steven Price and his wife Evelyn, who would like him to drop dead. Steven throws a party for Evelyn at the former asylum, but ghosts hack into his computer to invite the descendants of the five people who survived the '31 fire. Ali Larter and Taye Diggs play our sensible heroes, Bridgette Wilson's character seeks fame and ghosts with her camera in hand, Peter Gallagher's Dr. Blackburn has some secrets, but the standout is Chris Kattan as the guy who owns the house and really doesn't want to spend the night there. Most of these characters are merely serviceable, but Kattan is a lot of fun.

HAUNTING EFFECTS

Jan de Bont ruined his own movie by packing it full of CGI ghost effects that look awful. With some subtlety, he could have had us wondering if the haunting was real or if it was Marrow manipulating his test subjects, but it's hard to question whether or not the haunting is real when you've seen a goofy looking ghost child swimming through a bed sheet. These ghost kids are always popping up in sheets and drapes to talk to Nell, then a raging CGI Crain starts morphing out of surfaces and animal sculptures come to life... It's tough to believe de Bont could have thought anybody would ever be scared of this nonsense. It's really atrocious.

Director William Malone made the wise decision to go practical with most of the effects in this film. The look of the ghosts and their jerky, blurring motions are mostly accomplished through camera tricks and editing, and KNB provided some nice gore and creature effects. There's even a Dick Smith creature featured in here. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL gets a bit bloodier than the average haunted house movie, which I appreciated. Things only go out of control in the climax, when CGI effects are unleashed in the house. But even then, those effects look better than the CGI in THE HAUNTING. A movie that cost four times more.

CLEANING HOUSE

Nell becomes increasingly irritating as the movie goes on. Wrapped up in the mystery of the ghost kids, she starts acting like a total space cadet while talking about how much the children need her. After figuring out she's a descendant of Crain's, she manages to defeat her huge, cloaked CGI ancestor by standing up to him and getting him to pursue her to a door covered in carvings depicting Hell and Purgatory. The carvings come to life and drag Crain to Hell, while releasing the souls of the children that have been trapped in the house. They float off while thanking Eleanor, much like the souls at the end of THE DREAM MASTER. Crain really seems like a lame knock-off of Freddy Krueger. 

The Price couple set the events in motion, so it's fitting that the resolution of their storyline is also what leads to the end of the haunted house scenario. Steven throws Evelyn into a hidden room in the depths of the house, and from that room emerges an evil force that Kattan's character had previously warned about, something called the Darkness. This CGI thing flows through the house, killing anyone it touches, causing "death by corrosion". But, just as there are evil spirits, there are also good spirits, and one of the Darkness's victims is able to work up ghostly abilities so they can help the survivors escape from the house. It's a little corny, but it makes sense for the story.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 1999

THE HAUNTING was a new telling of a story that had previously been turned into a respected classic, and its cast, director, and the fact that Steven Spielberg was involved behind the scenes (uncredited executive producer) gave it an air of prestige. The finished film looks nice, but the effects are terrible and the story was poorly told. So this film was beaten by a bloody B-movie update. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL wins this Face-Off.

Do you agree with the outcome, or do you think THE HAUNTING (of Hill House) was better than HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL? Share your thoughts on these films in the comments section below.

If you have suggestions for future Face-Offs, you can send them to [email protected]. This Face-Off was inspired by an e-mail that was sent in by Andy Michael.

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