House On Haunted Hill
Rating -

Horror (US); 1999; Rated R; 115 Minutes

Geoffrey Rush: Steven Price
Famke Janssen: Evelyn Price
Taye Diggs: Eddie
Ali Larter: Sara Wolfe
Bridgette Wilson: Melissa Marr
Peter Gallagher: Dr. Blackburn
Chris Kattan: Watson Pritchett

Produced by Gilbert Adler, Terry Castle, Dan Cracchiolo, Steve Richards, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis; Directed by William Malone; Screenwritten by Dick Beebe and William Malone; based on the 1958 screenplay by Robb White

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"What would you do for a million dollars?" That tough question has generated hours of interest in humans, as each of us ponders what extents we would go to get paid such an overwhelming amount of money. Some of us would even work beyond moral limits to get that kind of dough; others do not feel the need to degrade or lower themselves just for the purpose of cashing in. With both cases, the decision brings up several issues, both within ourselves and with those that surround us. Think of that question if you decide to see the remake of "House On Haunted Hill." Would you spend one night in a haunted, eerie fortress for a million bucks? Probably not, if you understood the circumstances.

This is the issue brought up to the main characters in the movie, who receive invitations that promise a large amount of currency just for spending one night in the house on top of Haunted Hill. Not surprisingly, this is the type of plot that traps the players in their own curiosity, by hiding certain sensitive details concerning the castle they will be staying in. The invitation, and therefore the man who brings them there, fails to mention that this place once was an insane asylum, and has been accused of killing the countless visitors that have wandered inside. They heed the warnings of a paranoid servant, who admits that "everyone goes in, no one comes out." But all the same, these four individuals stick by their guns. And why shouldn't they?--can it all be that bad staying in a haunted house overnight?

"House On Haunted Hill" is a skillful horror movie, badly written, but photographed with such precision and brilliance that the story's inadequacies are no problem. The director, William Malone, uses this film as an opportunity to test the limits of dark and disturbing imagery, and its use of an insane asylum as the source of horror creates a mood unlike anything seen in a movie this year. Like "The Haunting," a visual masterpiece with a script weaker than a wet noodle, this is a film without story or meaning, other than to substitute chilly plot details with graphic and eerie camera shots. In other words, it is a triumph of style over substance--a triumph that, in any case, deserves an audience.

Four people who have nothing in common are invited to this "house" by Steven Price, played by Geoffrey Rush, who owns a carnival of horrors, and is one of the most mysterious men of his time (indeed, this may be a sign of Rush trying to replace Vincent Price's original role). Earlier on in the movie, his wife, a vein and self-centered hussy, demands that he send out invitations for her birthday party, which is to be held at this mysterious house in question. Because of his anger towards his greedy bride, he shreds her list, and makes up a new one, probably to help unload some of the cash that she's trying to get her hands on. His effort is quickly sidetracked, however, when the fortress, bound by torture chambers and frightening images etched in stained glass, comes alive as soon as night falls.

That's basically the story of "House On Haunted Hill," minus a few brief but unexpectedly ludicrous twists. As a movie about characters and plot, it does not deliver, but as a movie about design, it fascinates with an endless array of dank images; one of the most intriguing is a series of black-and-white dream sequences, shot so that the only color seen is that of the sight of blood. Another takes place when a woman, armed with her own video camera, walks through the menacing halls underground, and films a terrifying event that is not visible to the human eyes. Furthermore, the cinematography works well when setting up the premise; the first shots, in which a slew of asylum inmates escapes and murders the staff, is especially hypnotic.

This isn't a great film, nor is it meant to be. This is a movie in which the only purpose is to dazzle audiences by breathtaking visuals and glorious set designs. For that reason, and that reason alone, one should not approach it as something with a complex plot or interesting characters, but as something that visually examines the lengths one will go to for money, despite their lack of information. If visual effects were more like paintings, than here is one that deserves to sit alongside one of Picasso's works.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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