THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1999) ***
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher, and Bridgette Wilson Director: William Malone Running Time: 96 minutes Rated R (for strong terror violence and gore, language and brief nudity)
By Blake French:
It's been such a long time since I have been truly terrified by a movie that is supposed to be scary. To my pleasant surprise, however, "The House on Haunted Hill," did scare me out of my wits at times. Curiously, I find myself disliking the film because of the flawed characters and structure, yet recommending it due to the enticing and thrilling material contained within the tension-filled story line.
The first thing I would like to do in reviewing "The House on Haunted Hill," is compare and contrast it with the milder horror flick released earlier this year called "The Haunting." That film surprised America with an unexpected PG-13 rating, unlike the appropriately R-rated "The House on Haunted Hill." Although "The Haunting" did work due to an intriguing story line, it missed the fact that in order to please an audience attending a scream-feast, it needs to do some experimenting with its atmosphere, characters, and antagonism so we know what we're up against. That film had little to no violent, gory, or shocking material, only contained marginally passable psychological terror. That is the main reason why that very film, directed by Jon De Bont, didn't manage to become a memorable summer movie experience.
Unlike "The Haunting," "The House on Haunted Hill," is not afraid to graphically pick off its characters one by one in a grizzly manor to provoke horrifying fright in an audience. It is great fun to predict who is going to be next to go and how they'll be murdered. Personally, I've been longing for this kind of material for quite some time now.
This film does, however, have a lot in common with "The Haunting." For example, both movies are shot in somewhat of an old-fashioned style--an effective characteristic. Both offer quite a bit of scary material. But "The House on Haunted Hill" seems to be more of an ambitious, if flawed, thriller. The story centers on a clan of five strangers who each are offered one million dollars if they spend the night in a closed-down Psychiatric Institute that was massacred by its own patients after a rebellion in the 1930's. In charge of this whole arrangement, a twisted and rich theme park owner, Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush), and his wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), who have been experiencing marital problems for some time now. They're throwing together this party for Price's birthday, but when an elaborate and efficient security system traps them in, weird events begin to occur. Things that may or may not be part of an intricate plan to induce money, murder, and survival.
What, or who, is responsible the unusual assurances at the institute? How did the guest list of the party mysteriously alter itself? What is happening to everyone if this entire situation is a prank? Are these characters that stupid? What exactly is the instate haunted by? Why did the patients rebel in the 30's, and not sooner? Their motives are clear, but why wait so long to do something about the hell accruing because of their doctors? "The House on Haunted Hill" is not the movie to answer these questions. Neither is it the film educated enough to properly develop an explanation of the characters to us. Stephen Price is developed well in one of the film's first scenes. But for the rest of the characters, each of them saying their name and what they do for a living doesn't quite cut it here. Because of this, the movie's many plot and character twists aren't as effective as they should be, because we don't know the characters to begin with. So if the movie tries to tell us that someone is not who they appear to be, how are we supposed to believe it--we never really knew who they were from the beginning?
Also to this film's dismay, the direction is all over the wall here. William Malone does a good job of focusing on each of the scary elements, but not on the characters. When they walk slowly down a dark deserted hallway, they seem to get off focus of where they really are and the circumstances they are in. Also nearly crucifying the production: there aren't any boundaries here. Seemingly anything and everything can happen. At least "The Haunting" had some guidelines of where reality is taken into account.
The Psychiatric Institute is a perfect, terrifying atmosphere for this movie to be placed in. The fact that the strange and seemingly dangerous occurrences could be part of Price's trickery, or something else on that matter, just strengthens the drama more and increase the line of raising tension. The filmmakers take advantage of most of the opportunities they receive to use the house's many dark hallways and creepy chambers. In particular, there is a especially disturbing sequence in a chamber, which is supposed to make an insane man sane, or a sane man insane, that produces such a horrifying perspective of a character's mind, it is almost safe to say the filmmakers went too far over the edge here.
I also find to my liking the film's performances, which are creative and full of energy. Geoffrey Rush is a great stuck up fraud, and he is able to accomplish much with his character due to his wonderfully fresh development, unlike the other characters. Famke Janssen ("Deep Rising," 1998) I also am surprised to enjoy, in a sly, conniving role. Taye Diggs can't really do much in this type of movie, he is more fit in films like "The Best Man," or "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," but what he does seems underplayed. Who really stands out here is the always appealing Peter Gallagher, who brings a hidden regularity to his character. But regardless of his character, he doesn't scene-steal, nor does he overact.
"The House on Haunted Hill" may be a very flawed film, but at lest it serves its purpose: to provoke fear in an audience. It is a very close call for me, recommending the film or not, and a medium review is given. Someday I might regret my decision to warrant "The House on Haunted Hill" with a minor recommendation. But as of this day and age, I feel obligated to.
Brought to you by Warner Bros.
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