House on Haunted Hill (1999) – The Test of Time

Does the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill stand the test of time 25 years later? Let’s dig into it and find out

Last Updated on May 31, 2024

From one 1999 horror remake to another. After rewatching The Haunting with eyes that were both more critical and 25 years older, it got me thinking about the other remake that came out that year. One that was a remake of a far sillier movie and that was the first effort from a new studio, namely Dark Castle Entertainment. The original was from a far less dark castle in that of schlock and gimmick purveyor William Castle and it starred Vincent Price as a man offering strangers money to stay in an allegedly haunted house for a night. While The Haunting failed on multiple levels to improve with age, how does House on Haunted Hill (watch it HERE) look after a quarter of a century? Does its cheesy yet graphic tone feel at home in the time of A24 and elevated horror or should it forfeit its 1 million dollar check and leave the cursed grounds forever. Close the shutters and let’s see if this movie stands the Test of Time.

Plot

In 1998, Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adler formed Dark Castle Entertainment with it being a subdivision of Silver Pictures with an eye for horror. While its first 3 movies are seen as a fun, unrelated trilogy in House on Haunted Hill, other remake 13 Ghosts, and Ghost Ship, House on Haunted Hill was decided as first with it being kicked around as early as 1997. In a neat touch, William Castle’s daughter served as an executive producer on the movie since it was the first for the company and one of Castle’s biggest movies from his run. William Malone served as the director and claims to have written about 20% of the screenplay but didn’t get his name in the writing credits. Malone was a huge fan of the original and got his start in horror with 1980’s Scared to Death and 1985’s Creature. While these may not be stone cold classics, they are much more fun than they have any right to be. After that he would do episodes in both Freddy’s Nightmares and Tales from the Crypt. This movie and Fear Dot Com would get him a spot in the Masters of Horror lineup, but he has been very quiet since then.

The credited writer on the movie is Dick Beebe whose other screenplays include an episode of Tales from the Crypt and Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. The cast is a fun and strange one that includes Oscar winner and scene stealer Geoffrey Rush as Steven Price, a loving if not obvious nod to the original movie’s star, as well as Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Chris Kattan, and the great Jeffrey Combs. Rush, Diggs, Kattan, Gallagher, and Wilson don’t have much at all in the horror genre of note apart from Wilson’s minor role in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Ali Larter had a bunch of the Resident Evil movies and Final Destination while also appearing in an episode of the Creepshow series on Shudder. Combs is a damn legend, but Famke Janssen has much more horror in her resume than you’d expect. Lord of Illusions is an underrated Clive Barker flick, but she was also in The Faculty, Deep Rising, and Hide and Seek amongst others. The cast is held up wonderfully by Rush and Janssen’s hate chemistry as well as the horror presence, and I meant that spectrally, of Jeffrey Combs.

William Castle was the king of gimmicks for showing his movies in theaters and the original movie was no different with “Emergo” being the one to accompany it. This was a system of pulleys to have skeletons whoosh across the theater to scare and enthrall movie goers. In that spirit, the 1999 remake gave away scratch tickets to patrons in an attempt to have them win the same money that was being given away in the film. While critics didn’t care for the movie, it was a financial success for the studio with a 42 million gross on a 19-million-dollar budget. The movie would also get a straight to video sequel in 2007 that carried over Jeffrey Combs and gave him a much larger role this time.

House on Haunted Hill (1999) – The Test of Time

The story for the movie starts with a scene from 1931 as the patients in a psychiatric hospital get loose and kill all of the staff except for 5. It is found that horrible methods and experiments took place and that Dr. Vannicut was probably one of the 20th century’s biggest killers. Cut to the present and we now follow amusement park mogul Stephen Price setting up a birthday party for his wife. She sends a list of guests which he promptly shreds before making one of his own. This list too is changed from an unseen presence on his computer and strangers show up at the now abandoned hospital and are given some history by the owner Pritchard. Nobody knows why they were invited as they don’t know each other or the hosts but they are given the enticement of a million dollars each to spend the night… actually, to survive the night. Price has some things set up and one of his engineers is there to oversee but the house locks itself off and eerie occurrences begin to happen.

They go to investigate and after one of the guests disappears and they all start seeing things, we learn that one of the guests is having an affair with Price’s wife Evelyn and they plan to kill him. Price knew from the start and even after being framed and apparently killed, shows his last trick and plans to kill Evelyn. The other guests find out that they were invited because they are descendants of the survivors of the incident in 1931 and Price inadvertently lets out one hell of a poltergeist. The survivors flee and find an exit in the attic while the ghosts reclaim some of their vengeance.

Signs of the Time

While there were remakes before with such masterpieces as The Fly or The Thing or even 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, most of the decade avoided the trend and it really didn’t take off until the beginning of the new millennium. Psycho would come out the previous year though and 1999 would have TWO remakes get released. While it’s a sign of the times, it’s also the beginning of an era for better and for worse. In the technology realm we have some very early looking laptops and cell phones to the degree that these phones don’t have the cameras that we have now and so one of the characters brings an actual video camera on the adventure and the writers use it to great effect. The house is old and big enough with tunnels that go deep enough that these early cell phones also don’t have the strength to get a signal out of the house. It’s a nice moment that a current screenwriter would have to come up with where in 1998 when it was written, that was just reality.

While there is something else that marks it squarely in the 90’s, that being the blockbuster tapes seen being used by the engineer that warms my heart, this is also a time capsule of CGI. We’ve discussed the ebbs and flows of good and bad CGI that happens in the lifetime of the use of it but sometimes we see a difference in the same year. I watched both this and The Haunting on Blu-ray and boy, with a couple of minor exceptions, do the ones here hold up a hell of a lot better than its 1999 remake brethren. It comes down to different effects teams, different budgets, and what you are trying to accomplish but this is an example of good 90s CGI that is a rare thing indeed.

House on Haunted Hill (1999) – The Test of Time

What Holds Up

There is a lot here to like. First and foremost are the credits and opening scene that set up the tone of the movie wonderfully, at least where the scares are involved. The opening massacre is the best shot, scored, acted, and thematically relevant part of the movie and it makes you want to watch the rest of the movie without question. The mix of black and white camera footage with seeing it in real time and then the transition to an America’s Most Wanted type of video explaining what we just saw in a nice diegetic way. Some of the other behind the scenes things that still rule are the score, NOT the soundtrack, the set decoration, and the effects. The score does a good job of telling the story along with the characters while the set decoration and sets themselves are characters on their own. The physical effects that include the use of blood, fast shaking characters ala Jacob’s Ladder, and the makeup of the creatures and ghosts are still freaky and that includes the awesome saturation chamber segment with the two Jefferies. The little CGI used is actually good except for maybe when the house turns into a face, something that was just par for the course in 1999 horror remakes.

The Jefferies of Combs and Rush are the two pillars that hold the movie together from an acting standpoint with Combs leaning into the supernatural killer aspect like he’s mixing Dr. West and the weird FBI agent from Frighteners while Rush is the perfect stand in for Vincent Price and William Castle. Part showman, part snidely conman, and all charisma. It couldn’t be a better portrayal or even character. The other thing that holds up great is how this is as a remake. it pays homage to the originals with general premise and plot and even some character names while keeping itself very much its own thing. It sits in a great place, especially after Psycho was a shot for shot remake and The Haunting tried something different but failed on many levels. One of my favorite scenes is when Bridgette Wilson’s character is filming with her video camera, and she picks up stuff on the tape that she can’t see in real life. It’s a surgery happening, and all of the ghosts look up at her silently at the same time. There are a couple well executed things throughout that standout compared to other movies.

What Doesn’t Hold Up

I’m happy to report that far less doesn’t hold up than does. Some of the CGI is iffy at times like when the house turns into a face or a few of the shots with the evil ghost at the end. While the score is wonderful, the soundtrack doesn’t quite work for the movie even if I don’t hate the songs by themselves. I just find them distracting throughout the course of the actual movie especially compared to what the score brings to the table. Along those lines, while the performances of the two Jefferies and Famke Janssen are without flaw, the rest of the cast and the script in general are nothing special. Is it a case of the cast unable to elevate not great material or script bringing down the casts performances? Either way it’s noticeable. Chris Kattan is an interesting experiment and apparently let him improvise some and just be him, but it is distracting from the rest of the movie. He has a couple really good lines but other than that he is cringy at best and a detractor at worst.

Verdict

This has nothing to do with original vs remake but this movie, Vincent Price and William Castle pedigree aside, is far more watchable than the original. While it has some holes to poke in it, its easily one of the best horror movies of 1999. It predates the remake craze and gave a good schematic on how to do that right even if many of the studios failed to follow the plan. It started the studio off on the right foot and none of the movies that followed really captured the same lightning in a bottle the way it does, nor do they hold up as well as this does. House on Haunted Hill stands the Test of Time and is as strong as the haunted halls of the asylum it takes place in.

A couple of the previous episodes of The Test of Time can be seen below. To see more, click over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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