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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