I’ve got two movies for you today. Both the original and the remake of House on Haunted Hill. One of them I love, the other not so much. Can you guess which is which?
House on Haunted Hill – USA, 1959. Dir. William Castle, Screenplay Robb White. Starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Carolyn Craig.
House on Haunted Hill – USA, 1999. Dir. William Malone, Screenplay Dick Beebe. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan.
I love The House on Haunted Hill. It’s a wonderful, campy movie starring Vincent Price and it’s a lot of silliness. It’s maybe not terribly scary and in the end turns out to be not really a ghost movie, but it’s so much fun it’s really hard to not love it.
I’ve always really enjoyed William Castle movies. There’s a charm to the silliness and gimmicks. I would totally be into sitting in a theater, watching House on Haunted Hill in “emergo” – that is, having a plastic skeleton fly over my head during the middle of the film. Or how about 13 Ghosts with the magic glasses to see the ghosts? That stuff is fun!
Anyway, House on Haunted Hill. While overall not really scary, it certainly has some fantastic moments. The ghost in the basement, the floating woman at the window, the bloody head in the suitcase. They’re more for jumps than the slow burn of building terror found in other ghost movies, but like I said, they’re fun.
And I really do love that shot of the woman floating in the window.
House on Haunted Hill is actually now in the public domain so it’s super easy to find streaming online. Everywhere. And of course it’s available on DVD and Netflix. If you’re looking for a haunted house movie that will make you smile, this one might be it.
Did I mention it has Vincent Price? Because it has Vincent Price. You all know how much I love Vincent Price, right? I could talk about him all day. Or I could just link you to what I wrote about The Pit and The Pendulum last year. So there’s that.
Okay, so I love this movie.
You know what movie I love not so much? The 1999 remake Dark Castle Entertainment produced.
To put it bluntly, that movie sucks. And their remake of 13 Ghosts wasn’t really any better. It took them a few years to start producing movies that weren’t terrible. I’d give Gothika credit for finally bringing Dark Castle out of the realm of unwatchable films. Take that for what you will.
In any case, their remake of House on Haunted Hill is really, really bad.
How bad? So bad that it took me over a decade to finally finish watching it. I’m not kidding. Watching it for this 31 days was the first time I actually made it to the end. And I’ve started it more than once. I usually give up around the time Famke Janssen decides she’s done with the party and goes to bed. And then I decide I’m done with the movie and do that same thing.
The premise of both films is similar, an eccentric millionaire invites a group of strangers to a notoriously haunted house for his wife’s birthday party. Whoever survives the night will receive a large sum of money. In 1959, it was $10,000. In 1999, it was one million. Either way, surviving one night in a haunted house earns you money. Awesome.
While the original doesn’t offer much in the way of backstory, the remake gives us the story of a Dr. Vannucutt, a crazy doctor who liked to do weird torture things to the patients at his asylum. I don’t know, something like that.
The opening of the remake is just about as good as the movie ever gets. We see the patients all revolting against Dr. Vannacutt and his staff, we find out the house burned down in fire started by Dr. Vannacutt that killed everyone, patient and doctor alike, inside. And then we cut to present day Steven Price (Price, get it?), the millionaire who made his fortune making scary amusement parks rides. And playing elaborate, expensive pranks on people? There’s a little bit of back and forth between him and his wife, the whole party thing is set up, and then that’s it. We get to go the house. And it all quickly goes downhill from there.
I don’t know what it is about this movie. The original manages to pull off the scare vs. camp thing really well. The remake never seems able to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it camp? Is it gore? Is it scares? Or is it jokes? Is it a ghost story? Or is it a convoluted murder mystery? And will anyone ever remember that poor guy in the control room? The characters are flat and boring, the basement is boring, and, well, the whole thing is really just boring.
The cast isn’t terrible. We get Geoffrey Rush as Steven Price, Famke Janssen as his wife Evelyn, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, and Peter Gallagher as guests. Chris Kattan is actually pretty good as the house’s unfortunate owner Watson Pritchett.
You know its a bad sign when one of the best parts of the movie is Chris Kattan’s acting. Eesh. I had high hopes for Geoffrey Rush but even he seems bored by this movie.
But these are both haunted house movies. So let’s talk about the houses.
The original film used the Ennis House in Los Feliz for the exterior of the house. And it’s a really cool location. Of course, the interiors in the film don’t match the exterior of the house at all. The rooms all look much more like the traditional, gothic haunted house set. Long hallways, the parlor with its swinging chandeliers, a random, spooky wine cellar.
The remake uses this crazy weird behemoth of, man, I don’t even know. It’s blocky and ugly and has a giant tower but mostly looks like no real building ever would look. Especially an old abandoned asylum from the 1930’s. Someone who knows more about architecture can maybe explain the set design for me? Was it supposed to be some art deco thing? Or is just a bastardization of the Frank Lloyd Wright house from the original? I don’t know!
The inside of the house is okay, it has a lot of dark, menacing corners and weird stain glass ceilings. The basement is filled with stuff from its days an asylum for the criminally insane but don’t think too hard about how all of that should have been burned to a crisp when the entire house burned down in 1931. Whatever.
I think there was only one moment in the entire film that I found to be genuinely creepy. It’s when one of the guests, Melissa, goes wandering off into the basement alone with her little video camera. She’s a wannabe reporter or some such thing, I wasn’t paying attention. In any case, she’s wandering around and she’s looking at her camera’s viewfinder. She turns a corner and suddenly she’s filming a room with a group of doctors performing an awful looking surgery. She lowers the camera and of course the room is empty. So she raises the camera again and there they all are back on the screen. She watches them, fascinated, until suddenly they stop cutting. They look up. AND THEY TURN AND LOOK AT HER.
That was pretty WTF.
What we get next is pretty much what you would expect. And then we go back upstairs and everyone hears screaming and goes running and the movies jumps right back into confused and boring.
Oh well, they had a moment at least.
I feel like the difference between these two movies, the original being so campy and loveable while the remake is a mess that tries too hard and then fails anyway, highlights the problem with most remakes. In their quest to make something new and edgy, the people doing the remakes lose sight of what made the originals so great to begin with. Whether it’s an element of story, great characters, scary moments, the camp, there’s always a reason that people love a film. Those reasons are so often forgotten in an attempt to make something modern. Whatever modern. I don’t need modern. I just want good.
This is that whole Less is More thing I keep going on about. Yup. I’m just gonna keep saying it. Less is more.