Given the irredeemable cheesiness of the original 1958 “House on Haunted Hill,” a low-voltage shocker best remembered for producer William Castle’s gimmicky offscreen embellishments, the makers of the remake had nowhere to go but up. So it’s not exactly a stunning surprise to find the new horror opus is a slicker and scarier piece of work. Of course, even with a better cast and vastly more elaborate special effects, not to mention a couple of nasty new plot twists, it’s still nothing but a gussied-up B movie. Still, this “House” — which opened Halloween weekend without benefit of press screenings — should scare up some respectable B.O. returns before it begins to haunt vid stores and pay cable.
Screenwriter Dick Beebe recycles a few key plot elements from Robb White’s 1958 scenario, but greatly expands upon the guests-in-a-haunted-house premise. In this version, the suavely sardonic host — known as Frederick Loren back when he was played by Vincent Price — is Stephen Price, the multimillionaire owner-designer of frightfully exciting amusement parks. Even more than the name change, Geoffrey Rush’s slyly allusive performance comes off as a wink-wink homage to the original pic’s star.
Remake begins on a genuinely unsettling note, as the inmates of a Depression-era insane asylum launch a bloody rebellion against the sadistic staffers who have long tormented them. Apparently, Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) and his associates were especially fond of operating on patients without using an anesthetic. Riot sequence climaxes with the mad doctor and his nurses getting a taste of their own medicine while a home-movie camera records the horror.
In a clever segue, some of the grisly footage is aired more than six decades later on a true-crime TV series. Among the fascinated viewers: Evelyn Price (Famke Janssen), Stephen’s shamelessly decadent (and flagrantly unfaithful) trophy wife. Evelyn demands that her husband rent the still-standing Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane — a monolithic art deco edifice atop a spooky oceanside hill — so she can throw a birthday party there. He agrees, but replaces her guest list with his own.
Stephen receives the first of several unpleasant surprises when he greets the invitees: Eddie (Taye Diggs), an ex-baseball player; Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), a soft-spoken doctor; Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson), a former TV anchor who’s eager for another shot at stardom; Sara (Ali Larter), a strong-willed beauty who claims to be a movie studio executive; and Pritchett (Chris Kattan), a high-strung, hard-drinking fellow who is the last living descendant of the asylum’s original owner.
Except for Pritchett, Stephen doesn’t know any of these people. (At least that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.) Evelyn says she didn’t invite them, either. Shrugging off the unsolved mystery of why the four strangers received invitations, Stephen sticks to his original plan. He offers to pay $1 million to anyone who spends the night in the haunted house and lives to see daylight. (Talk about inflation: In the 1958 version, the payoff was $10,000.) Stephen has rigged some tricks to scare his guests, and Evelyn has a few tricks of her own, but things get out of hand when truly supernatural terrors begin.
The blood flows more freely and the body count is appreciably higher in the new “House on Haunted Hill.” Unlike the 1958 version, which turned out to be a tale of all-too-human villainy, the remake is a horror show with full-blown poltergeists and state-of-the-art effects. Purists may miss the plastic skeleton that Castle wanted exhibitors to string from the ceiling in major-market theaters during screenings of his “classic.” Everyone else will appreciate the improvements.
Visually, the pic is nothing if not eclectic: The f/x crew apparently spent a lot of time studying the darkly impressionistic artwork of George Grosz and the more nightmarish parts of “Jacob’s Ladder.” Production notes frankly acknowledge the Albert Speer influence, evident in exterior matte shots of the ex-asylum. Some of the interiors aren’t nearly as imaginative, but the rotting corpses under glass provide an appropriately eerie touch.
Dramatically, “House on Haunted Hill” is far less impressive. The cheap scares and shrewd shocks are abundant, but the muddled narrative is short on characterization and skimpy on motivation. Director William Malone lets the pace flag a bit in the final third, and the pic as a whole is too reliant on vulgarity for comic relief. On the other hand, Kattan earns some honest laughs with his boozy and cowardly wisecracking in a role originally played by Elisha Cook Jr.
Rush and Janssen set off some amusing sparks while developing a relationship that is less love-hate than hate-revile. Other performances, including singer Lisa Loeb’s cameo as a TV news reporter, are first-rate.
And to answer the obvious question: Yes, the remake of “House on Haunted Hill” is a lot more fun than the remake of “The Haunting.” But someone should stop this mini-trend before we see a new and improved version of “Hillbillies in a Haunted House.”