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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/28/00

House on Haunted Hill
1999 (2000) - Warner Bros.

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

House on Haunted Hill (1999) Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/B+

Specs and Features

93 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Snapper case packaging, audio commentary with director William Malone, three deleted scenes, Tale of Two Houses documentary analyzing the 1959 and 1999 versions, six Behind the Screams "making-of" featurettes, photo gallery, clips from Malone's film Creature, theatrical trailers for the 1959 and 1999 versions, cast and crew bios, DVD-ROM features (including interactive game, two essays, web access, and trailers), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned

"We're all gonna die."

The past year and a half has seen its fair share of remakes, a few of which have been renditions of classic horror movies. First we got Gus Van Sant's new version of Psycho. Then, last summer saw the release of action director Jan De Bont's update of The Haunting. Now, we have a flashy revamp of horror impresario William Castle's classic House on Haunted Hill. None of them equal their predecessors, but they all pump up the camp level and this one is no exception.

Geoffrey Rush stars as Steven Price (played in the original by Vincent Price), an amusement park tycoon who is planning a birthday party for his wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen). Four-letter words are her specialty, and she aims many of them at her husband as she tries to convince him that she hates being married to him as much as he does to her. There's so much disdain between the two of them, that it's hard to believe they were ever happily married. Nonetheless, it's fun to watch them bite, stab and beat each other up.

In one of the movies cornier set-ups (careful here... I may be giving something away), the spirit of the house hacks into Price's computer and gets rid of his guest list, creating a small one of its own. The new attendees include a former baseball player (Taye Diggs), a doctor (Peter Gallagher), a television celebrity (Bridgette Wilson) and a supposed executive at a production company (Final Destination's Ali Larter). Not that their jobs have anything to do with the plot, but their personalities are so interchangeable and disposable that they're barely distinguishable.

They're all invited to Evelyn's party, and are promised a million dollars if they're able to make it through the night in the house. The longer they stay, the clearer it becomes that it's not going to be an easy million. It seems that this house is alive... and it's doing its best to knock them off one by one. Chris Kattan provides some welcome comic relief as Pritchett, the owner of the hillside home (who's stuck with the other guests). Without him, the movie could easily have started to drag more than it already does. I honestly never thought I'd be a champion of Chris Kattan, but what can I say? His humor worked, and in a lot of ways, he saved the movie.

Now... this is a big house, that I'm sure is filled with creepy rooms. But you never see them. The action is centered in pretty much two rooms, as the scared inhabitants (who have obviously never seen a haunted house movie) make one wrong turn after another, ending up in the same rooms again and again. Good use is made of some really cheesy effects, but they are so overused toward the end that they become just plain bad. For the most part, these effects are wisely kept in the shadows (if they weren't, you'd really be able to see how bad they are).

The anamorphic transfer (in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio) is absolutely brilliant. I noticed no compression artifacting or edge enhancement. The black level is very good (the picture is never too dark), while the colors are accurately reproduced. Since the movie is a newer release, the scratches and dust that can be found in print transfers of some older movies are virtually absent. Though the audio mix accurately reflects how the movie played in theatres, it's still lacking. I remember thinking (when I originally saw this on the big screen) that the sound was overly loud and too heavily geared toward effects. It wasn't the theatre, but the sound mix itself. It's REALLY loud. So aggressive is the effects track here, that it drowns out some of the dialogue. The bass level is right on, and good use it made of the both front and rear speakers, but the overall loudness was an irritation. I had to constantly alter the volume during the film to hear dialogue and "normalize" the effects.

Warner's included quite a few extras here, but some of what's included is not very exciting. First off, there's the mind-blowing menu design - freaky, cool and nicely interactive. You'll sit and play with the menus just because you can. The most important extra has to be the director's commentary with William Malone. It never drags, and he has lots to say about filming the movie and some of the techniques they used for the effects shots. Also included are two deleted scenes (one filmed twice in two different locations). After looking at them, you can see why they were cut - they would definitely have slowed the film down, adding nothing except running time. There's also Tale of Two Houses, which is a short documentary comparing the two versions of the film. It's mildly entertaining, but you only really hear from Malone (repeating some of what he says in the commentary), and it just made me want to see the original film instead. For good measure, you'll also find a tribute to the original film's director, William Castle, and some featurettes on specific effects shots. The featurettes are also narrated by Malone, who also added a clip from one of his first films, Creature. I tell you... Warner really worked the director on this release.

For you computer savvy folk, there are also a few features on the DVD-ROM side. You get a puzzle game where you try escape from the haunted house (with no pay-off), and two essays on the history of horror cinema. But the real treat is the link to the movie's website, forever emblazoned on your hard-drive (and you can visit it as often as you like!). How's that for an extra?

This version of House on Haunted Hill seems to be an honest attempt to stay true to the scary and fun nature of the original, but it only partly succeeds. It feels more like an episode of Tales from the Crypt, and with good reason - many of the people involved here (including director William Malone and producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler) were staples on the television series. The elements of the TV series that worked - the humor, raunchiness, and tongue-in-cheek bitchiness (which was in this film at one point, seen in the cut footage featuring a hilariously bitchy Debi Mazar) - don't come across very well on the big screen. Still, the movie manages to be fun and scary at times, and if you can really put your suspension of disbelief to work, it's not a bad night in front of the television.

Dan Kelly

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