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in the house

Geoffrey Rush

Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen get domestic

"The House on Haunted Hill"

Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla

When done correctly, the haunted-house movie can be nearly ideal entertainment; claustraphobic, scary and sometimes spectacular, depending on the visual bent of the director.

Unfortunately, it's very rarely done well, despite many attempts; my favorite remains "The Legend of Hell House," which is readily available on videotape and plays often on the late show.

"The House on Haunted Hill" is a remake of a William Castle b-movie classic, updated for the '90s with a stellar cast and crackerjack effects.

DVD notes

This DVD presentation shows quite a lot of thought in the way the menus are set up. In addition to filmographies, theatrical trailers (including the trailer from the original 1959 edition), and multiple languages, there is an abundance of special features, including a fascinating look at the similarities between the 1959 and 1999 movies, as well as some special-dffects secrets and deleted scenes (including a particularly nasty one you won't want to miss). This is what DVDs are for.

It begins at an insane asylum as the demented inmates riot against a sadistic staff, leading to a tragedy that kills all but five. Flash forward to the present, when theme park maven Stephen Price (a sly tribute to the original movie's star, Vincent Price) has just finished debuting his newest roller coaster (actually the Incredible Hulk coaster at Orlando's very own Islands of Adventure theme park, an experience I highly recommend if you haven't already been) and is preparing to throw a birthday party for his less-than-loving wife. He plans an unforgettable shindig.

However, the guest list is mysteriously altered, leaving only five complete strangers to try Price's challenge; he's put up a million dollars per guest (that's five million dollars total) to be awarded to anyone who spends an entire night without leaving the notorious property known as the most haunted place in Los Angeles. This is, if you haven't already guessed, the former asylum. Of course, you have to survive in order to collect.

As is the case with many haunted house flicks, the house itself proves to have its own lethal intelligence. What was a mean-spirited prank turns into a fight for survival among stereotypes ... I mean, characters. The writers throw in a misleading and totally unnecessary subplot involving Price's marital woes and attempts by both parties to frame the other for murder, but it doesn't wash for a moment.

The cast is led by Geoffrey "Shine" Rush as Price, a showman along the lines of P.T. Barnum -- or even, gulp, William Castle, the B-movie impresario who once wired theaters playing one of his movies to deliver mild electric shocks to patrons during key moments of the film.

Rush is always outstanding and he manages to rise above the material here.

Taye "The Best Man" Diggs makes for an excellent hero; he has a future as a widescreen leading man.

Famke Janssen Famke "Goldeneye" Janssen plays his spouse, and Peter "Sex Lies and Videotape" Gallagher is one of the guests, a mild-mannered physician. "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Kattan provides comic relief as a caretaker who knows all too well what the house is capable of and proves to be one of the bright spots of the movie, something I never thought I'd say about the guy.

The effects are dazzling at times; the appearances of various ghosts and ghouls are genuinely creepy. The spectre of Dr. Vannecutt (Jeffrey Combs) is particularly disturbing; it still weirds me out whenever I'm reminded of his appearance on a surveillance camera. The climactic portion of the movie revealing the monster at the heart of the haunting is a computer-generated Lovecraftian nightmare, but takes up far too much screen time; it would have made for better scares to show us less of the thing and more of the actors reactions to it.

In fact, as good as the effects are, they occasionally overpower what could have been a better movie if the filmmakers had focused more on genuine suspense and atmosphere instead of overpowering the senses.

"Less is More" is a truism that Hollywood moviemakers espouse onscreen but rarely follow behind the camera. "The House on Haunted Hill" could have benefited from a budget slashed even more effectively than the designated female victim (see if you can guess who she'll be at the beginning of the movie) who goes brainlessly and inevitably to her fate, wandering around in a dangerous house with a video camera - by herself. Kinda sums up the whole movie.

Theater or Video?
Eye candy best viewed on the big screen.

DVD at
VHS at Amazon.

See other information about "House on Haunted Hill" at Internet Movie Data Base.