House on Haunted Hill (1999)

“I lied. The house is alive. We’re all gonna die.”

Justin’s rating: mommy… make the monsters go away…

Justin’s Review: It’s kinda funny, because a few friends of mine and I all saw this movie via the following process: We’d never heard of it before it hit theaters, we were bored and had nothing better to do, we went by ourselves, and we had to change our pants afterwards due to the fright factor.

House on Haunted Hill is a remake of the 1959 film, although the two have wildly differing plots. We begin our story in a 1930s asylum, where the mood goes from Foreboding to Chainsaw Massacre in about 30 seconds. Did you complain about the lack of blood in The Blair Witch Project? It all went into this movie, believe me.

Flash forward a few decades, and we’re taken to a theme park where horror shuckster Vincent Price (Geoffrey Rush, who’s been taking some rather wacky roles as of late) is leading a reporter around on his devilishly twisted rides. In fact, this section of the movie is nearly more inventive than the rest of the film.

After that, there’s some really weak plot threads that culminate in getting five complete strangers into spending the night in this now-haunted asylum along with Price, his wife, and a caretaker. Actually, I had a major case of “Who the heck is that?” during this film, which probably saved me from being more frightened than I was. You know where you see an actor, and you know you’ve seen them, but you can’t figure out from what or who they are? And then it slowly drives you nuts for the entire film, particularly if nobody’s sitting by you that can help you out. Well, I couldn’t figure out who the caretaker was until the last ten minutes… it was Chris Kattan, from SNL and A Night At The Roxbury. I suppose I didn’t recognize him because a horror film is the last place I expected him to turn up.

Back to the movie! Really, this plot is fire and forget. Who cares why these people are there, who cares about the whole money payoff (which is explained in detail, then dropped like a dead rabbit for the rest of the film), who cares what motivation Price and Co. have? It really just boils down to a classic haunted house film that has some above-average special effects and tense moments. The basement of the asylum is the only place that Price didn’t fix up, so it remains as it was in 1930. The troop goes down there, encounters a ghost or two (which are really freaky, but we’ll talk about that later), and goes back upstairs as quickly as possible. This I can understand, but then they proceed to obey the sixth rule of horror films, which is “If You Find A Haunted Place, Keep Going Back There Until Your Party Is Whittled Down To About One Or Two People.” I swear, they kept going down there (splitting up, naturally), encountering horrors, going back upstairs, then finding some other asinine reason to return back to the dungeon. I found this more amusing than annoying, but that all is secondary to…

THE FREAKY HORROR THAT IS THIS MOVIE! I’m sorry, it’s just that I really wasn’t expecting to be frightened at all. As probably many of you, I’m a veteran of many, many horror flicks, and I know all the cues. Fake scare, real scare. Cue up music, death occurs. But House On Haunted Hill comes up with some fairly original and extremely spooky moments. There were at least two times in the film that I said a very bad word and did the fingers-in-front-of-the-eyes thing. I shan’t spoil all these moments for you, but I can say that the ghosts/evil beings were well-done. The filmmakers took the footage of the ghosts, yanked out a number of frames in their movement, and the finished process looks jerky and eerily unnatural. The film gets sped up at moments to an almost hyper-kintetic pace, where your eyes can’t keep up with all the horrible images flashing. The sound effects, particularly in surround sound, are subtle and unnerving. And, as I said before, this movie isn’t afraid of showing a little blood.

I won’t go so far as to say that this is some sort of horror masterpiece. Most horror films have pretty bad acting, and aside from Kattan, this movie does have a foul acting smell to it. There are a number of other points I could critique, but about the only thing that I really hated was the cop-out monster at the end. Attention filmmakers: if you’re building up to a final confrontation with a before-unseen monster, you better make it look scarier than hell itself. This movie, instead, gives us something that looks like an animated oil slick. Oooh! Ahhh! Eeek! But, at that point I was pretty much a gibbering idiot who’d be scared by a flying Kleenex.

The two commandments of any movie are: (1) To entertain, and (2) To be true to its genre. House on Haunted Hill certainly did entertain me, and it lived up to the horror genre quite admirably. Faults be dokely-darned, if you want to be scared, this movie might well have what you need.

Kyle’s rating: It’s sick. It’s putrid. It’s disgusting. It’s what you just put in your mouth instead of your toothbrush.

Kyle’s review: There isn’t anything like a good horror movie to cap off a perfect evening. If it’s fresh and interesting, you’ll be thoroughly entertained! If it’s scary and you’re alone with your girlfriend, she’ll need you cuddling up to her protectively all night! If your girlfriend has just left you because you’re too boring and too lazy and too smart and too dull and not at all like the Fabio-dude she met at a Los Angeles nightclub THE ONE ****ING NIGHT YOU WERE TOO BUSY WITH IMPORTANT COLLEGE STUDIES TO GO WITH HER, the makers of good horror movies thoughtfully cast only the most beautiful girls in the “helpless female” and “empowered female” roles! Basically, a good horror movie is one of the wonders of the world that will make you smile/vomit/gasp no matter what havoc you’ve undergone or how much Ritalin you’re taking. And the film House on Haunted Hill is a good horror movie!

In the film, Famke Janssen has a problem. She never got to home base with James Bond in Goldeneye! Also, in this movie, she’s married to professional thrill-provider Geoffrey Rush and she wants the perfect scary birthday party. In fact, she wants her birthday party at the titular house, which in the 1930s was LA’s number one psychiatric hospital.

Why is it haunted? Well, as Famke and we learn (from Peter Graves!) the doctor in charge of the psychiatric ward was kind of a nutjob. He had loads and loads of mental patients; so he and his staff apparently figured no one would mind if he eviscerated, electrocuted, and generally mistreated a batch here and there in the name of “science.” After racking up a death count modern serial killers would be envious of, the bad doctor’s run of fun ended when all the patients escaped and took out their aggressions on every breakable window in the house and on the staff. But since the building’s engineers had thought ahead, the doctor needed only a moment to flip a lever that sealed his doomed staff, himself, a load of angry maniacs, and a raging fire inside the house.

Fire burns them all up, the lower levels get a new “smoked and burned” motif, and the house goes unused for the rest of the century until Rush decides, yes, his wife’s birthday will be at the infamous house. But just to make things interesting, he shreds up the guest list she sends him and makes up one of his own. But then someone, or something, gets rid of that one and devises a new list. One that will bring four perfect strangers to the party which will probably turn out to be more of a blood and death orgy of destruction. With cake!

Do I really need to tell you what happens next? Rush and Janssen greet their guests, everyone wonders why they were invited, the master control switch “accidentally” gets flipped, and metal shutters come down over every window and door sealing the partygoers inside. Then people start disappearing. Is it all a game of Rush’s to spook the guests and possibly kill his bitchy wife? Is it all a game of Janssen’s to kill her husband for his loads of money? Or is it all of the above with a big angry ghost amalgamation of everyone that has ever died in the house? Does the pope go poop in the woods?

Blood will be spilled, glass will shatter, but most surprisingly not a single slice of birthday cake is seen. That was kind of a disappointment, though I doubt the birthday cake scene from Happy Birthday to Me will ever be topped. Oh well. If you like horror films with gore and blood and a brain (not in the sense that you see a brain, in the sense that the movie is “smart”) I highly recommend House on Haunted Hill. More surprises than you’d think, more cool special effects and set pieces than you deserve, and a splash of nudity for all your viewing needs. Have fun, and tell me if I’m wrong in thinking this is the perfect way to celebrate my mom’s next birthday!

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