House on Haunted Hill is one of those horror films that just is what it is. This is a big budget film with B movie aspirations. And as weird as it sounds, at times they find a balance that works. Besides some plot elements that don’t really pay off, you can have a fun, turn your brain off experience. Add that with a solid video and audio transfer, a boatload of special features, and House on Haunted Hill is Recomended for those looking for a cool throwback 90’s horror flick.
In today’s Hollywood culture, remakes are inevitable. If you’re a lover of modern-day cinema you have resigned yourself to this fact long ago. Horror is without a doubt no exception to the rule. While being a remake of 1959’s Vincent Price film of the same name, 1999’s House on Haunted Hill was the start of Dark Castle Entertainment under the wing of Silver Pictures. Being named after horror producer William Castle, the company's focus was on horror and had quite a bit of Castle’s 60’s films in mind to modernize. House on Haunted Hill set the standard for films to come.
Beginning with the establishing scenes containing flashbacks of psychotic scientists, to the roller coaster in present day, the intentions here are clear: amp up the gore and despicable characters that will likely die in gruesome ways, and give the kids what they want because roller coasters are cool! I specifically remember in the late 90’s that roller coasters were a big thing. And instantly House on Haunted Hill dates itself in all the right ways for this Gen-Xer. The always great Geoffrey Rush plays Stephen Price, a millionaire amusement park owner who arranges a birthday bash for his gold-digging wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen). The pluckesh report these two actors have, trading stabs back and forth feels reminiscent of the Kevin Williams era 90’s horror writing that I enjoyed growing up. Make no mistake, this is less than his best. But even lesser is still a welcome change in an era where horror films feel devoid of characters with distinct personalities, like today. Geoffrey Rush in particular hams up the screen in his performance that obviously feels like a Vincent Price homage, even though he states in the commentary it was not.
But what is a birthday bash without a group of guests to enjoy it with? Hell, even if they are complete strangers. What does it matter? When Stephen creates the guest list, his computer mysteriously changes the names to bit part actors from the 90’s and early 2000’s. I mean seriously, from the always manic Chris Kattan, to Peter Gallagher, all the way to Final Destination’s Ali Larter, this cast is filled with “hey, I remember that guy” actors. Which makes it even better getting to see actors you know being offed in creative ways. Ali Larter’s character of Sara, and Taye Digg’s Eddie are highlights of the stock cast of characters that are essentially meat for the grinder. And House on Haunted Hill excels at just that - killing its stars in gruesome and creative ways in the funhouse of terror. At times it actually succeeds in evoking frightening imagery, like when a character gets locked in a spinning room with mirrors that project frightening images as it twirls. These images have stayed with me for years as I hadn’t seen House on Haunted Hill for well over a decade before this review.
It doesn’t take long for heads to start rolling in the house, and for true personalities to come to light as everyone turns on each other. It is at this point where the problems start piling up as conflicts arise. Specifically, one that pits Stephen and Evelyn against each other as to who is actually behind the happenings in the house. It is a needless plot line that ends in a convoluted climax that includes whiplash plot twist after plot twist, and just ends up feeling unnecessary. In fact, once you discover all the secrets in the house, it does come across as an over explanation of something that should have been kept more mysterious. Our minds are much more capable of frightening us than anything that is spelled out, and this film definitely commits the sin of over explanation. But with that being said, House on Haunted Hill doesn’t claim to have an air tight script. Despite its many flaws, it successfully reboots the original while stepping up the thrills and updating its characters. It may be nostalgia, but I won’t lie that throughout the years I have come back to House on Haunted Hill quite frequently around Halloween and consider it an underrated horror gem.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Shout! Factory gives House on Haunted Hill the Blu-ray release it deserves, with slip cover to hard cover casing that reveals brand new cover art which could be displayed on a poster on my wall it looks so good. The cover art is actually reversible, the opposite side revealing the original DVD box art. Enclosed lies a BD-50 Blu-ray that is chock full of extras, while unfortunately not being accompanied by a DVD or Digital Copy. Once popped in, we are brought straight to our main menu that allows us to navigate from there.
After a long wait, House on Haunted Hill finally brings home the scares on Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer that doesn’t disappoint. Though being shot on 35mm, House on Haunted Hill was given a new 2K scan for this Collector's Edition, which is most apparent in detail within the house. This house has a whole slew of nooks and crannies that all feel unique, with some walls revealing individual textures that gives this environment a whole lot of character. Edges are crisp, clean, and precise, giving this transfer that 2K sheen we all like to see. And close ups reveal a good amount of detail as well, showing pores and blemishes throughout. Unfortunately, this only applies to the interior shots, as exteriors appear soft, grainy, and lacking in the detail that the rest of the film has. The establishing shot of the house, and the roller coaster scene are excellent examples of this. Luckily for us, ninety-five percent of this film is interiors, so it doesn’t add up to that much. Framed at a 1:85.1 aspect ratio, black levels remain deep and inky while not protruding too much on detail in darker scenes. House on Haunted Hill boasts a hell of a lot of style over its brief runtime and it would be easy for it to look dated because of all of the askew camera angles and extreme lighting situations, but this transfer holds up strongly under all of it and Scream! Factory has turned out another solid transfer.
House on Haunted Hill shrieks its way onto Blu-ray with a much deserving DTS-HD HD 5.1 track that gives the film a solid upgrade. House on Haunted Hill oozes with style, and it is brought to the forefront right out of the gate in the asylum. Speaker separation is excellent with patients screaming from left to right, and throughout the sound field making it feel expansive. The roller coaster rumbles your walls in the next scene, boasting impressive bass response. The feast for your ears continues into the house as it comes to life with eerie creeks, clanks, and ghoulish effects throughout your surrounds, immersing you in its fun house of terror. Vocals are clear and audible and at generous volume. This mix takes good advantage of this film's manic quality, and provides a fun audio track that will satisfy any horror fan.
Interview with Director William Malone (HD 37:30) - Our Director walks us through the original House on Haunted Hill and talks about what they wanted for the remake. This is a welcome addition to the features as it goes into the atmosphere they wanted for the film and what the intentions were for the characters.
Interview with Composer Don Davis (HD 9:40) - A interesting feature where our composer discusses what is manipulation when it comes to scores, then discusses how older films used manipulation through music, and how it changed today.
Interview with Visual Effects Supervisor: Robert Skotak (HD 18:42) - Another well-done feature where Robert talks about how they used the art deco look of the film and enhanced it with lighting.
A Tale of Two Houses (SD 19:14) - An interesting but older featurette that discusses the director of the original film and compares the original film to the remake, even at times going to the lengths of shot to shot comparisons.
Behind the Visual Effects (SD 7:01) - The second of the older features that goes into the cinematography of the film, whether they tilt the camera or skew the perspective. It also goes into the making of the torture chamber and the complications that came with it.
Deleted Scenes (SD 12:04)
Theatrical Trailer (SD 2:13)
TV Spot (SD 1:05)
Concept Art and Storyboard Gallery
Behind the Scenes Visual Effects Gallery
Movie Stills and Poster Gallery
House on Haunted Hill isn’t breaking any new ground in horror. Its plot is uninspired while its twists feel unnecessary. It is your typical horror trope of putting stereotypical characters that are in situations where they are just meat for the grinder. But what a grinder it is, and what a funhouse of horrors it is housed in. This movie is a whole lot of fun. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in inventive kills, and it knows when to mix them up and keep us guessing about what exactly the house wants. When it is finally revealed it is honestly a bit of a letdown, but what a ride it is getting there. Put that together with a great video and audio presentation, and a ton of special features, and you are left with a release that is Recomended for any 90’s horror fan.