House on Haunted Hill

There is an old joke about a man who walks up to a woman and offers her $1 million if she will sleep with him. She immediately answers yes. He then offers her half-a-million, and she say yes. Then he offers here a $100,000 and the offer is still yes. When he finally offers her $1,000, she turns him down and says AWhat kind of woman do you think I am?

He replies, AWe’ve already established that. Now we’re just working on the price.

houseonhauntedhillpicturePeople will do strange things for money. They will cheat, lie, steal, maim and even kill for it. Money is so intoxicating that even the sight of it makes some people go off the deep end.

Desperation for money is what brings a group of strangers to a shuttered insane asylum to spend the night. They have been promised $1 million each if they manage to survive the evening. Sounds like an easy million, but what the unsuspecting guests don=t realize is that their accommodations are haunted. Or are they?

That’s the premise of A House on Haunted Hill, a modern remake of director William Castle’s campy 1958 horror classic starring Vincent Price. In that film, Price played an impresario who kowtows to his wife’s demand that he throw her a private party in a haunted house. As the evening progresses, strange and frightening events take their toll on the guests.

The new film stars Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (AShine@) in the Vincent Price role. As Stephen Price (a nifty nod to Vincent), Rush seems quite at home as the billionaire amusement park mogul who delights in scaring people. With his pencil-thin mustache and a devilish glimmer in his eye, you can’t help but like a man who derives pleasure from making other people feel uncomfortable.

That is also the goal of director William Malone and writer Dick Beebe, who pump up the volume of the original into a horrific blend of images and gory mayhem. Castle was never a great filmmaker, but he was effective. He knew how to scare an audience, even while making them laugh.

Malone, a low-budget horror filmmaker, tries to replicate that formula, and in the process delivers a film that is wildly uneven. Castle reveled in insinuation. His films (ATingler,@ AI Saw What You Did@) revealed little if any actual gore. Malone piles on the gore frame after frame, obviously catering to audiences who demand more than suspense.

There are some suspenseful moments in the film, but they are of the garden variety. Characters walk down dark, spooky hallways, unaware of what waits for them around every corner. Those traditional moments work well, mostly because the film is set inside an abandoned insane asylum. Credit production designer David F. Klassen for creating the perfect environment.

Into this labyrinth of dark hallways and spooky padded rooms arrives five guests, including a former baseball player (Taye Diggs), an actress desperate to make it big on television (Bridgette Wilson), a secretary posing as her boss (Ali Larter), a doctor (Peter Gallagher) and the descendant of the asylum’s original owner (Chris Kattan, along for comic relief).

Much to Price and his wife Evelyn’s (Famke Janssen) surprise, the arrivals turn out to be total strangers instead of the guests they invited. Being a sport, Price offers the strangers the same offer, but before any of them can bail, the asylum’s security system seals them in.

I love haunted house movies, but after last summer’s big-budget AThe Haunting, and now AHouse on Haunted Hill, that love affair is wearing thin. Haunted house movies are supposed to be creepy. It’s all about lights and shadows, and mood and tone. The new breed of filmmakers toss all of that out the window in favor of state-of-the-art special effects. They believe bigger is better, and that’s their major mistake.

Castle’s original film put the audience in the same position as the characters. It was all about discovery. Were these horrific things really happening, or were they the handiwork of the demented host? We didn’t know until the character’s did, and that is what made Castle’s film so involving.

Malone and Beebe tip their hat way too early to create any real mood or suspense. Beebe’s attempt at updating the plot and being hip make it impossible for the cast to take any of this seriously. Rush is the only actor who seems to understand the script’s weaknesses and plays to them. The remainder deliver by the book performances.

Technically, the film is sound. The musical score by Don Davis suggests a scarier movie, while Rick Bota=s cinematography is crisp. Ironically, the remake cost more (even though modestly budgeted at $15 million) than Castle spent during his entire career. Obviously money can’t buy everything, especially quality.



Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan, Bridgette Wilson in a film directed by William Malone. Rated R. 85 Minutes.

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