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The Horror Advocate: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1999)

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The Horror Advocate makes cases for the under-appreciated cinematic treasures that lurk just beneath your bed. If your horror film is publicly derided, undeservedly ridiculed or generally forgotten, you may find yourself in need of… The Horror Advocate.

Resolved: Sometimes, being batshit crazy is a good thing and House on Haunted Hill (1999) is exactly that.

The original House on Haunted Hill is a seminal classic of 50s B-horror. William Castle was no stranger to movies by the time he directed the 1959 classic, having produced and directed over 40 movies prior. House on Haunted Hill, starring the legend, Vincent Price, represented Castle’s great foray into absurd film exhibition. Castle wanted to make the experience of watching a movie something visceral; a great magic trick that descended upon the audience and touched them in their seats. Literally. The movie’s plot about a millionaire inviting complete strangers to his mansion daring them to survive a night in his esteemed house and, in doing so, earning themselves $10,000, is just as well a dare to the audience. Castle knew that he’d have to up the ante during these screenings so he instituted a feature called, Emergo. When a skeleton arose from the events on screen, an actual fake skeleton would fly over the audience in the theater attached to a wire (3D eat your heart out). Castle continued these gimmicks in movies like The Tingler and 13 Ghosts using vibrating seats and  hide-and-seek glasses features, respectively. Castle wasn’t just shameless in creating an immersive experience for his audience, he was downright crazy in his efforts.

The 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill represents the best and worst of Castle’s intentions and is a deliciously crazy movie as a result.

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Geoffrey Rush

As the first film produced by Dark Castle Entertainment (the production company put together by Robert Zemeckis to remake Castle’s films), House on Haunted Hill is very much aware of its source material and the spirit behind it. The movie closely follows the plot of the original, this time the winner’s purse is up to $1 million for surviving the night. The strangeness (and admittedly, a little bit of unbelievability) begins as we learn the house is the one who has written, signed and mailed the invitations to each of its guests. Taking up the reins from Vincent Price here is Geoffrey Rush starring as a Castle-esque showman named, get this, Stephen PRICE. Rush is wonderful in the role, relishing the chance to play a rendition of two horror legends. The rest of the cast is filled-out by millennial favorites such as Taye Diggs, Famke Janssen, Ali Larter, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan and Jeffrey Combs. Most are fairly aware of the movie they’re in and play each scene accordingly. Famke Janssen, in particular, vamps it up as the sensually seedy wife of Price.

House on Haunted Hill

The tongue-in-cheek humor is wonderfully undercut by the absolute absurdity of the horror that takes place. When House on Haunted Hill gets mean, it gets really, strangely mean. A flashback detailing why the house is now a legendarily haunted establishment shows the once mental institution in the middle of a takeover by the interred. The sequence is off-putting and brutal as nurses are killed with pencils and put through the tests that the patients once had to endure. This scene establishes techniques that have come to haunt the genre for years after, never having been employed better than here.

House on Haunted Hill

Director, William Malone uses quick cuts and jump cuts in action to show how these ghosts move with violent immediacy. The technique is jarring and useful in jump scares that are telegraphed but effective. The style matches the substance of the characters and ghosts within the story. This is an insane asylum that was run by a sadistic, insane, doctor who performed unspeakable acts. The story sets up the style used throughout which made me genuinely nervous whenever one of the house’s shifty inhabitants threatened their presence.

The strangeness doesn’t stop there as Price learns each of the evening’s attendees aren’t guests of his or his wife’s choosing and are actually descendants of those who once worked at the insane asylum. The house is taking revenge on those who had caused its demise.

Geoffrey Rush

The house and the spirits within are the protagonists and our lead group of characters are the antagonists, even if they’re innocent and merely paying for the “sins of the father”.

The movie and its success are responsible for a lot of what made studio horror nigh unbearable in the early 00’s. From the emo/hard rock soaked soundtracks (though I personally dig the hell out of Marilyn Manson’s version of “Sweet Dreams“) to the bloated CGI finales, House on Haunted Hill has a lot to answer for. And it’s not that House is a perfect movie either! The plot is ridiculous, the dialogue is atrocious and the movie ends in one of the biggest, ugliest CGI finales I’ve ever seen.

But it has charm. Movies in all genres are able to get away with a lot of plot holes and character discrepancies if its genuinely fun to watch. Go back and try to explain to me the geography of the T-Rex paddock scene in Jurassic Park. You can’t but no one cares because it’s so much fun. In horror, if you establish characters that you’d like to see offed in a situation that is unique and intense, we tend to let those things go as well. House on Haunted Hill is a love letter to William Castle’s exhibitionism. Instead of skeletons flying from the theater rafters, Geoffrey Rush lets a roller coaster literally fly off its rails. Sure, the trick may really only work once, but that charm and effort remain forever.

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Curtis Waugh
Curtis is a Los Angeles transplant from a long lost land called Ohio. He aspires to transmute his experiences growing up a Monster Kid into something that will horrify normal people around the world. When he isn't bemoaning the loss of the latest Guillermo del Toro project, Curtis can be found every Thursday night at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, awaiting the next Dwayne Johnson movie.
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