Daily Archives: April 20, 2014

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

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*. Geoffrey Rush wanted to play Vincent Price (Stephen Price here) as John Waters. But hasn’t John Waters been playing Vincent Price all these years? The camp bloodlines have no end and no beginning.
*. Tell me that the people behind American Horror Story weren’t watching this. Or maybe they are the same people. I don’t know.
*. I guess I’m a real outlier in my response to this one. According to the review aggregators the original 1959 version is a much loved camp classic, while this movie got near-universal bomb ratings. But I actually like this movie better. I think it duplicates the spirit of the 1959 version remarkably well and is quite spry and inventive in its own right.
*. It was the ’90s. Here are some names you might have known then and probably won’t today: Taye Diggs, Famke Janssen, Chris Kattan, Marilyn Manson. I didn’t even recognize Jeffrey Combs. And Geoffrey Rush? Well, he was part of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but those films won’t last. How oblivion scatters her poppies.
*. And, since it’s the ’90s, the Ennis House is now an art deco computer tower. A style that probably won’t age as well as Frank Lloyd Wright.

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*. The FX (and there is almost no use of CGI) seem to work really well, and they’re helped by an original visual imagination. These aren’t the usual horror-film staples here, but genuine bits of inspired oddity. The zoetrope “saturation chamber” is marvelous. Sadly, when the horror-film staples are introduced they are often unconvincing, with the blood in particular seeming fake and the cuts on Janssen’s and Larter’s faces looking like pen strokes.
*. Among the deleted scenes is the explanation of how Larter substitutes herself for the house’s intended victim (her bitchy employer). I understand why they left this sequence out, but it leaves the story a bit confusing because you’re not sure how she fits into the evil agenda, or if she is even at risk as a victim of the house. This same issue leads to all kinds of other questions. If Dr. Blackburn had not been killed by Janssen, would the house have killed him? As Diggs was adopted, was he in danger? And did the house not know this? Did the house not know that Larter didn’t belong? If it had known, would it have cared?
*. The smoky composite ghost seems to change gears a lot between moving either very quickly or very slowly. But perhaps it’s just toying with its victims. In any event, it’s necessary for the final part of the movie to play out as it does.

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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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*. Wait. That’s the House on Haunted Hill? The Ennis House in L.A.? Best known for its appearance in Blade Runner? Talk about an odd choice of location.
*. Something about the title has always bothered me. The hill is haunted, not the house?
*. William Castle. Being a low-budget producer should give one a certain amount of creative license. I still believe that, but it’s also the case that most producers in such situations stick with what they know is going to make a quick and easy dollar.
*. Castle was a kitsch showman with an odd penchant for theatre gimmicks. This movie was released in some locations with a mechanical skeleton dubbed “Emergo” that by all reports was about as convincing as the plastic-and-wire contraption that scares Annabelle to death. Children were even reported to have thrown things at it.
*. Gimmickry aside, Castle’s films tend to be derivative and formulaic, as you’d expect. I mean, a falling chandelier? That goes back at least as far as the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera. Squeaky doors mysteriously shutting on their own, and cobwebs on all the furnishings? (Speaking of which, why are there so many cobwebs? The house is being lived in and there are a pair of housekeepers, even if one of them is blind.) And when was the first time a film began in darkness with a woman screaming? I’m not sure when this bit of business began or where it came from.

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*. The basic idea isn’t all that original either. It’s just And Then There Were None re-jigged as a horror film.
*. That said, cheap schlock does have is attractions, and there must be some reason this movie is still watched aside from the inherent fun of watching Vincent Price camping it up. Unfortunately the rest of the cast has little to do, with Elisha Cook in particular being wasted.
*. I think it would have worked better if some of the guests had actually been killed, and can’t think of any convincing reason why Castle didn’t up the body count. At 75 minutes he had plenty of time.
*. What a remarkable wardrobe for Annabelle Loren (Carol Ohmart). Her first get-up looks like some kind of velour bathrobe-with-pants combination, And the second outfit with the piratical sash is equally bold. Meanwhile, everybody else in the movie is dressed conservatively. Perhaps Annabelle just has a flair for the dramatic.

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