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HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

by: Michael Dequina

When they went into production simultaneously, comparisons were immediately made between The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill--understandably so, since they are both haunted house movies and both remakes of earlier films. But there is one critical difference, and that is intent. While The Haunting helmer Jan DeBont had the misguided idea of turning Robert Wise's cerebral 1963 psychological thriller into an effects-heavy scarefest, Haunted Hill's William Malone has the more modest ambition of turning William Castle's campy 1958 horror film into... a much higher-tech 1999 horror film. It should come as no surprise that Haunted Hill is the one that turns out better, but just as unsurprising is the fact that being better than the disastrous The Haunting doesn't necessarily mean the movie's all that good on its own terms.

The opening title sequence of Haunted Hill--a fascinating collage of disturbing images, jittery lettering, and eerie music--alone is creepier than anything in The Haunting, and for the most part Malone is able to maintain the mood. While the set for the abandoned mental hospital that is the titular house is nowhere as ornate as the mansion in The Haunting, it is a lot more menacing. Unlike all the brightly lit production design in that film, the hospital has no shortage of dark shadows where unknown forces can easily pop out at the five strangers (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Chris Kattan) who are assembled by theme park owner Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) and his wayward wife (Famke Janssen) to spend the night for a cool $1 million each--that is, provided they are alive the next morning.

There is little more to the plot beyond the setup, which is no shock since the point of the film is to scare the audience as guests are bumped off one by one. While Malone's atmosphere remains consistently creepy, it never enters the realm of being frightening--a problem that too often occurs in this age of elaborate special effects: certain opticals may look cool, but there usually isn't anything particularly scary about them. This is especially the case with the elaborate effects-laden finale; the audience is impressed with the visuals, but they don't quite send shivers down the spine.

With genuine scares severely lacking, one at least hopes there's some excitement to House on Haunted Hill. Alas, though everything in the film is polished to the sheen, in particular the surprisingly dud-free set of performances, overall it feels so polished as to be manufactured, drained of any wild, spontaneous spark. House on Haunted Hill hits a number of its marks, but one just wishes it hit them in a manner less familiar than the bumps in one of Price's rollercoasters.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)

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