An Ardent Defense of the House on Haunted Hill Remake
“Funky old house, ain’t it?”
I am loath to pick “favorite” movies for any number of reasons, but when asked to do so with horror films, as I often am, I frequently point to the 1959 House on Haunted Hill. This is, in part, precisely because it isn’t the best movie I can think of, by any traditional measure, which frees it up to instead be so many other things.
There is no doubt in my mind that House on Haunted Hill is nowhere near the best horror film ever made, whatever that even means; not the most important, not the most inventive, and certainly not the scariest.
It isn’t even the best haunted house movie that I can conveniently think of. Instead it is charming, creaky, sardonic, delightful.
It has all the earmarks that we associate with William Castle, no one’s nomination for best director, but probably more than a few peoples’ favorite, not to mention its noir-with-supernatural-trappings script by Robb White, who is honestly probably every bit as responsible for creating what we think of as a William Castle movie as Castle himself. In front of the camera there is, of course, none other than Vincent Price, at his Vincent Price-iest.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) is essentially immune to criticism. Call it silly, or talky, or clunky, and even its most ardent supporters are unlikely to disagree. It’s the kind of film that can survive the RiffTrax treatment without detracting, in any way, from your enjoyment of the original.
This may also be part of why the 1999 remake works so well. Released the same year as the unfortunate update of Robert Wise’s genuine classic The Haunting, William Malone’s remake of House on Haunted Hill has less to live up to than that misfire, and is, therefore, free to take the bones of the original and build a bloodier, more ambitious, and more absurd edifice atop what came before.
At a glance, that bloody ambition separates the two films by orders of magnitude, but when you scrape away the artifice, they have the very same skeleton, and the same beating heart.
In Castle’s House on Haunted Hill that heart was Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart, whose chemistry as scheming husband and wife, each angling to knock the other off, provided the lifeblood of the film. “It’s a pity you didn’t know, when you started your game of murder, that I was playing, too,” Price says in the final reel of Castle’s 1959 original.
In 1999, Malone and his screenwriter Dick Beebe know what made the original film work. This time, the husband and wife are played to acerbic perfection by Famke Janssen and Geoffrey Rush, whose amusement park magnate character, named Stephen Price as a nod to Vincent, is equal parts Price, John Waters, and more than a bit of William Castle himself. Both of the actors are having a hell of a time, reminding us that, like love, mutual hatred is a kind of chemistry, and here it gives off sparks.
The sardonic wit of the original film also finds a good match in the jaded, cynical, post-Scream horror of 1999, as all the characters spend most of the movie acting like they’re being “had,” and, therefore, like they need to pretend to be in on the gag.
That jokey central premise rubs uncomfortably against the film’s other elements. Rush and Janssen bring more to the characters than they need to (Rush had already won an Academy Award and was nominated for another the year this movie was filming), with able support from a cast that includes Chris Kattan, of all people, taking on the Elisha Cook Jr. role from the first film and running it hilariously to the end zone.
But none of that is what anyone remembers. What we remember about the ’99 House on Haunted Hill is what it looks like, because it looks like nothing else.
The production team creates genuinely unsettling imagery that is constantly at odds with the Saturday Night Live skit ensemble piece that the film orbits around. Rather than sinking the enterprise, however, these contradictions play off each other, generating a charge that keeps the film going. The poppy character moments keep the set pieces from becoming too grim and joyless, while the sadomasochistic Jacob’s Ladder visuals prevent you from ever settling in too comfortably.
In this, 2002’s odd-duck horror noir Feardotcom, and, to a lesser extent, his Masters of Horror episode “Fair-Haired Child,” director William Malone and his crew conjure up what may be as close as anyone has ever come to creating a modern analogue to the look of those German expressionist horror films of the silent era.
I’m not the only one to think so, either. Roger Ebert, in his review of Feardotcom, said, “If the final 20 minutes had been produced by a German impressionist [sic] in the 1920s, we’d be calling it a masterpiece.” He’s not wrong.
So, is House on Haunted Hill a masterpiece? No, of course not. Like its predecessor, it is too preoccupied with being a spook show to worry about whether or not it is a piece of art, which is just as well. But its visuals very nearly are.
Look at the shots when Dr. Vannacutt, played by Jeffrey Combs, the closest thing the movie has to a “lead ghost,” steps out of the film’s giant zoetrope of a “saturation chamber” and is rendered in impressionistic smudges, like a Van Gogh come to life.
From the almost-but-not-quite monochrome Warner Bros. logo to the stop-motion title animations which nod to Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, Malone doesn’t make any secret of what he is trying to accomplish.
Combs plays Vannacutt in almost total silence. The film’s exposition is provided by a “Terrifying But True” TV series hosted by Peter Graves.
Feardotcom opens with Udo Kier fleeing through a subway decorated with a graffiti reference to Mad Love’s Dr. Gogol, while in House on Haunted Hill Geoffrey Rush is strapped into a straightjacket and muzzle that could easily nod to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs but instead chooses to reach for Mr. Sardonicus and The Man Who Laughs.
The place where the visuals of House on Haunted Hill are most often credited with falling down is in the film’s final reel, when the “darkness at the heart of the house” is unleashed.
Said darkness takes the form of a CGed composite ghost like a living Rorschach inkblot inspired partially (and perhaps apocryphally) by the Michael Whelan covers of H.P. Lovecraft books.
The effect isn’t very good, but it also isn’t as bad as its reputation. We all treat it as worse than it is because the movie has built it up so much, and because it suffers so in comparison to the genuinely unsettling practical ghosts that surround it. To see what the effects team were trying to accomplish with the inkblot ghost done better, if still not entirely successfully, see the aforementioned last 20 minutes of Feardotcom.
The 1999 House on Haunted Hill was released as the first film under the Dark Castle Entertainment banner, which was formed with the intention of remaking William Castle movies before going off in other directions after releasing only two, this and 2001’s Thirteen Ghosts.
William Malone, who had previously made a couple of schlocky ‘80s sci-fi monster movies and some Tales from the Crypt episodes, followed up Feardotcom and his Masters of Horror installment with an independently financed film called Parasomnia, a problematic take on the Sleeping Beauty story which seems to have (perhaps rightly) landed him in director jail for the last decade.
Nothing that he has done since ever bobbed up to the heights of House on Haunted Hill, let alone rose above them, but that’s okay. The 1959 original was one of William Castle’s best movies, too, and whatever else happens, we’ll always have those grotesque, nightmare images of jittery, rubber-faced ghosts, their heads madly vibrating in the depths of a burned out “sanitarium of slaughter.” There are worse legacies.