HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

R
Reviews

It's not a good thing for a horror picture when you feel compelled to point out that the most genuinely creepy thing about it is the opening-credit sequence, which owes a considerable debt of inspiration to the work of the Brothers Quay. Or when the second creepiest thing is the set design, prompting remarks about fans screaming the scenery. Both, sadly, are true of House on Haunted Hill, which is loosely-and loosely is the word-inspired by the fondly remembered 1958 picture starring Vincent Price.

As directed by William Malone (director of Alien knockoff Creature and several episodes of the cable fright series 'Tales from the Crypt'), House on Haunted Hill is a straight-ahead fright picture rather than a spoof like the original, whose broad outlines it retains. Amusement-park magnate Steven Price (Australian Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, affecting an American accent that makes him sound uncannily like James Woods) rents the house in question, which was once a hellish asylum for the criminally insane, with an eye to giving a birthday party for his wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen). To spice up the festivities, he offers each guest a cool million, assuming they stay the whole night and are alive to collect. But whose guests are they anyway? Steven threw away Evelyn's guest list (the Prices, it probably goes without saying, aren't happily married), but the guests who show up aren't the ones he invited, either. Before they can get around to pondering that question, very scary things start happening: Apparitions, screams in the night, mysterious streaks of blood, guests disappearing into the scary basement they persist in exploring when common sense would surely dictate they stay upstairs.

The proceedings are all utterly conventional, but watching them unfold is mildly diverting if you're in the right frame of mind, as many moviegoers apparently were over the Halloween weekend. The film also features B-movie stalwart Jeffrey Combs (Mr. Re-Animator himself) as the sadistic Dr. Vanacutt, whose spectacularly poor bedside manner started all the trouble; a pretty nasty scene in which the lunatics take over the asylum; and some apparitions that were scary in Jacob's Ladder and are still scary one generation removed.

And many millions of dollars' budget difference notwithstanding, House on Haunted Hill is nowhere near as big an overproduced bore as The Haunting; at least House doesn't strangle slowly on sets awash in curtains and carvings but absent so much as a single cauldron of blood or primitive electroshock machine.

--Maitland McDonagh