Legendary director and producer William Castle was the master of gimmicks. Most of his work was cheesy, low budget B-films. But Castle filmed and marketed his productions with a childlike enthusiasm. As a result, Castle’s movies have retained much of their charms in spite of the passing years. One of Castle’s best movies was The House on Haunted Hill.
The 1959 movie was the first of Castle’s two successful collaborations with actor Vincent Price. Like many of his movies, Castle marketed Haunted Hill with one of his trademark gimmicks. This time around, Castle had a red-eyed skeleton rigged to fly over audiences in the theatre as the film played in ‘Emergo’. Price played an eccentric millionaire offering five strangers $10, 000 to spend an evening locked in a haunted house. It proved to be a winning premise and The House on Haunted Hill was a box office hit.
Forty years after its release, Castle’s campy haunted thriller got the remake treatment. Fledgling studio Dark Castle Entertainment took on the production, hoping to update Castle’s plastic skeleton and prop severed heads for a modern audience. For this edition of Re-Animated, I’ll take a look at whether Dark Castle Entertainment succesfully retained the campy fun of the original while adding a harder R-rated edge.
The House on Haunted Hill
A Perfect Balance of Camp and Chills
Admittedly, younger fans may not appreciate the old-fashioned charms of this Vincent Price chiller. Nonetheless, Castle and Price deliver the kind of black-and-white horror made for watching with the lights out. From its opening with the disembodied heads of Price and Elisha Walker daring you to join them, Haunted Hill wears its campy heart on its sleeve. Furthermore, there’s a balance of giddy fun and genuine suspense, which has undoubtedly contributed to the film’s longevity. For an old, low-budget horror film, Haunted Hill surprises with some creative thrills. A ghostly woman appearing and then receding into the shadows still gets under your skin.
The House on Haunted Hill Solidified Vincent Price’s Status as a Genre Star
Of course, Vincent Price carries The House on Haunted Hill. Few actors could boast Price’s knack for balancing menace with winking hamminess. If you’ve never seen this movie, you need to be prepared – it is a low budget thriller. Skeletons and severed heads are clearly props. Like many vintage horror films, The House on Haunted Hill requires you to turn off your brain and let yourself be a kid again. If you can manage that task, this is the kind viewing experience that will remind of you childhood sleepovers and scary movies.
The House On Haunted Hill – A Remake That Wants to Have Its Cake and Eat It, Too
Geoffrey Rush and a Creepy Jeffrey Combs Are Highlights
Dark Castle Entertainment was originally formed to produce and distribute horror remakes of Castle’s original films. The first of Castle’s movies to get the remake treatment was The House on Haunted Hill. Straight out of the gate, the remake does a couple of things right. First, in a masterful casting stroke, Geoffrey Rush was pegged to stand in for the legendary Vincent Price. A brilliant actor in his own right, Rush looks and feels like Price. Arguably, Rush’s performance is the best part of the remake with his character renamed as a homage to Price.
Second, the remake introduces a much better origin story for its haunted premise. The concept of a mental institution with a demented surgeon, illegal surgeries, and patients run amok is nightmare fuel. Sadly, The House on Haunted Hill remake can’t capitalize on these strengths. What remains is a scare-free movie. Additionally, it seems confused about the type of horror film it wants to be.
A Horror Film That Just Isn’t Scary
Director William Malone struggles to maintain a cohesive narrative. With Marilyn Manson’s ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) figuring so prominently, I wrongly assumed Malone started in the music video industry. Several standalone images are downright creepy. Jeffrey Combs’ jerky body motions as the demented Dr. Vannacutt were vivid selling points for the remake’s marketing. But Malone can’t connect these images to form an actual narrative. As a result, The House on Haunted Hill remake works best when it feels like a music video. It rarely works as an actual movie.
Aside from Rush and Combs, most of the performances are bland or weak. Peter Gallagher feels like ‘Jeff Goldblum-lite’, while Saturday Night Live-alum Chris Kattan is bizarrely miscast. Famke Janssen turns in an awful performance that will have you rooting for the ghosts. Kudos to musician Lisa Loeb for an absolutely random cameo appearance. Everything then falls apart in the climax courtesy of some truly awful CGI ‘special’ effects.
Vincent Price and a Prop Skeleton Win Every Time
To be fair, The House on Haunted Hill remake isn’t a bad movie. Like the original version, it’s briskly paced and offers some disturbing imagery. Ultimately, it’s undone by its lack of scares and inability to carve out its own identity. On the one hand, the remake’s prologue suggests it wants to embrace a harder, R-rated edge. Yet it also makes clear overtures to the Castle original, as though it wants to be the same campy B-horror film. At the end of the day, it’s just hard to beat the winning combination of William Castle, Vincent Price, and a prop skeleton. If you only have time for one of these moves, I would recommend turning off the lights and curling up with the original The House on Haunted Hill.