Thursday, November 4, 1999

Renovated dementia

Movie: House on Haunted Hill

Posted on Thu, Nov 4, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

Shock-schlock director William Castle was the most accomplished prankster in Hollywood history. For the original theatrical run of his 1958 "House on Haunted Hill," Castle outfitted participating cinemas with an apparatus that shot a plastic skeleton out over the audience at a key moment in the story. Though the traveling cadaver was said to be an irresistible target to some of the younger members of the crowd -- many of whom carried slingshots back in those days -- the stunt was audacious enough that movie buffs still speak of it in glowing terms four decades later. No such extracurricular goodies accompany the film's 1999 remake, but Castle's demented spirit is all over the screen anyway. Staying true to its genre, this resolutely goofy shocker uses every modern trick at its disposal to amaze and amuse us while its flagrantly nonsensical script whizzes by without remorse.

If plot loopholes bother you, you're in the wrong "House." Like its black-and-white forebear, the 1999 version focuses on a twisted married couple who invite a group of strangers to spend the night in a deadly old edifice, promising a hefty paycheck to those who remain alive come morning. The situation immediately gets out of hand, with guests and hosts alike becoming the targets of an unseen force that seems intent on preventing any of them from collecting. As the atmosphere of fear and distrust builds, the potential victims do they only thing they can: They split up to search the grounds, either solo or in groups of two. That's why they're called "victims."

Who cares if it's absurd? The idea is to get these cardboard-cutout characters moving through one bone-chilling scenario after another. And on that front, the new "House" pays for itself. The setting-- a run-of-the-mill mansion in the original, but here updated to the wonderfully named Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane -- holds a myriad of magic-lantern terrors, including a black cloud of conjoined spooks that crawls across walls and ceilings like a computer-animated tarantula.

Some of the guests experience horrific visions, psychic remnants of the Institute's past as a haven for electroshock therapy and questionable surgical procedures. All are presented as herky-jerky, cut-up scenes of low-tech torture that are right in line with the Nine Inch Nails school of S&M music video. Admittedly, "Broken" was shot a full five years ago; but within the slow-moving horror genre, even such a late-arriving influence is a major step forward.

In true popcorn-movie tradition, the cast is peppered with B-list celebs, including Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher and "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Kattan. The one genuinely pedigreed actor, Geoffrey Rush, is given the lead role of Steven Price, a theme-park magnate who organizes the ill-fated soirée. The character's surname is an homage to the original film, in which the legendary Vincent Price played a similarly sinister emcee named Frederick Loren.

Rush, though, is no Vincent Price, and the rewritten role trades its former cruel charm for foul-mouthed tirades that the bitter ghoul directs at his equally unpleasant wife, Evelyn (Janssen). Price (the fictional one) is more fun in the film's opening sequences, as he oversees the launch of a new roller-coaster of his own design. Its unparalleled twists include a fake car that's loaded with dummy passengers and sent off the rails into space, an "accident" that's intended to induce heart attacks in the living patrons seated directly to the rear. His mustache twitching mischievously, this merciless impresario is Walt Disney's evil twin -- or William Castle, perhaps.

The emphasis on cheerful show-biz sadism is best summed up by Kattan's Watson Pritchett, a character who's a direct descendant of the asylum's original owners.

"This house is pissed," he warns his fellow partiers in the film's best line of dialogue. "It has no morals. 'Cause it's a fucking HOUSE."

The logic is circular, but the message is clear: Whether human or otherwise, you can't keep a good trickster down.

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