Release Date(s)1999 (October 9, 2018)
Studio(s)Dark Castle Entertainment/Warner Bros. (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
House on Haunted Hill was the first production from the newly-formed Dark Castle Entertainment, which was brought into existence by producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver. Directed by William Malone and released on October 29, 1999, the film managed to open at number one and eventually brought in about double its budget at the box office over Halloween weekend. Despite not overly impressing critics, it managed to leave a mark on certain members of its audience who recognized it as an atmospheric and enjoyable horror movie.
I’ve always had a particular soft spot for House on Haunted Hill. Back in the archaic days of dial-up internet, I remember waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the trailer to load before I could actually watch it. Being a remake of an iconic horror film, one that helped turn Vincent Price into a genre icon, the film had some big shoes to fill, and updating it for a modern audience meant changing a few things. Attempting to keep things simple, nothing about the film’s basic premise was altered substantially. Six people are invited to a haunted house to spend the night, and if they survive, they’ll win a large sum of money. Unfortunately for them, there’s a distinct possibility that they may die before the sun comes up. That’s pretty straightforward.
The changes that did occur include the amount of money that the characters would potentially receive inflating from $10,000 to $1,000,000, incorporating more background information about the party’s two hosts (Stephen and Evelyn Price), transforming the house into a former mental asylum, and the supposed ghosts turning out to actually be real, whereas in the original film, they were not. The film’s successful marketing campaign, which involved a Sweepstakes and scratch-off vouchers that were given out to movie patrons, also harkened back in a small way to the legendary gimmicks of Wiilliam Castle.
House on Haunted Hill also managed to nab quite an impressive cast, which included Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Bridget Wilson, and Jeffrey Combs, all of whom brought plenty to their roles. Geoffrey Rush’s look, for instance, was inspired by John Waters, which in turn made him look more like Vincent Price than the filmmakers had even intended. Also in the film briefly are Peter Graves, Lisa Loeb, and Jason Marsters, the latter of whom would go on to bigger success with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.
However, one of the biggest stars of the film is its special effects. Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and even Dick Smith provided much of the film’s grisly content, while genre veteran Robert Skotak (Aliens, The Terminator) was instrumental in creating many of the film’s optical effects and blending them with CGI. The latter became a source of contention amongst horror fans who would have preferred a more practical approach, but I would argue that most CGI in genre movies isn’t always used creatively or effectively. The Darkness (the CGI ghost monster in the film) is an artistic amalgam of images that blend together to give it a particular look. It’s much more imaginatively realized than many CGI ghost effects and, as a consequence, holds up better because of it.
House on Haunted Hill is also chock-a-block full of atmosphere. Between the practical and optical effects and the set design, it oozes it out of every pore. It’s definitely a house that you feel uncomfortable to be in, but at the same time, it’s not so dark and dreary that it has no personality. The scene which opens the film of the mental patients attacking and slaughtering the hospital staff who had been performing barbaric experiments on them sets the film’s mood perfectly. It lets you know right up front that these aren’t just ghosts that are looking to simply frighten you – they’re here to flat out mutilate you. It’s tongue-in-cheek to some degree, but done in a way that’s successfully creepy. Don Davis (the man behind the scores for The Matrix trilogy) provides an organ-infected soundtrack while Marylin Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” open and close the film, setting the film’s dark but playful mood with ease.
Scream Factory debuts House on Haunted Hill in the U.S. with a “new high definition transfer that was created in 2K resolution at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging on the Lasergraphics Director Scanner from the interpositive.” Honestly, the film has never really looked bad on home video over the years in its various forms, outside of being a bit brighter on VHS. However, this transfer is definitely an improvement over its DVD and overseas Blu-ray counterparts, mostly due to the amount of enhanced detail. There are some obvious areas of softness, mostly in the latter half of the film when the Shadow monster begins making an appearance, but overall, this is a sharper, cleaner, and more refined presentation than before. The color palette is fairly rich with nice flesh tones and plenty of deep reds for the film’s crimson-soaked activities, as well as the interiors of the house. The film’s opening at the amusement park is bright and punchy as well, contrasting the dank basement interiors of the house well. Blacks are deep with excellent shadow detail while the overall image is perfectly stable. The audio is provided in English 5.1 DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. This track sounds on par with previous 5.1 presentations of the film, but the boost in clarity and an uptick in loudness make it worth the upgrade. Dialogue is always clean and clear in the mix while the frequent surround activity of the house and its spooky inhabitants never overburden things. There’s even some deep bass activity to be had.
This release also ports over most of the original DVD release’s excellent extras and adds a couple of new ones into the mix. First up is an audio commentary with director William Malone, which is quite informative and enjoyable; a new 37-minute interview with Malone, who shares his stories about the making of the film, including an amusing anecdote about his 18-year-old daughter who wanted to spend the night on the set; a new 10-minute interview with composer Don Davis, which I honestly found pretty dry and uninteresting; a new 19-minute interview with visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak, who discusses the miniature work and special effects for the film, as well as working with some of the members of the cast and crew; 2 brand new animated image galleries: a conceptual art and storyboard gallery with 37 images and a behind the scenes visual effects gallery with 75 images (both courtesy of digital effects producer Paul Taglianetti); an additional movie stills and poster gallery with 60 images (courtesy of Brett Cameron); the vintage A Tale of Two Houses featurette from 2000, which is an excellent 20-minute look at the film with comparisons to the original; a vintage behind the scenes look at some of the film’s effects sequences with Malone, including The Glass Ceiling, The Saturation Chamber, The Vat of Blood, and The Exploding Floor; 4 deleted scenes, all with intros and outros by Malone; the original theatrical trailer; and 2 TV spots.
Not carried over from the original DVD release are scenes from William Malone’s movie Creature, as well as various cast and crew text notes, DVD-ROM games and essays, and the trailer for the original 1959 film. Also missing are two additional featurettes about the film’s special effects: The Shadow and The Sculptures, which is odd. And unfortunately, a new version of the film, which William Malone has been eager to make over the years to reinstate some of the film’s deleted scenes, wasn’t able to be carried out, for whatever reasons. But despite anything that’s missing (and the fact that I’ll miss the original DVD’s creepy menus, including that spooky bonus chamber sequence), this is a fine set of extras.
House on Haunted Hill’s success warranted a straight-to-video sequel eight years after its release, but it failed to capture the fun of the original. Even with its status amongst its fan base, I’ve always felt that the film was unjustly maligned years after its release by folks who didn’t seem to understand it for what it was. Most complained about the CGI without ever really appreciating anything else about it, whereas others who saw it (myself included) found it to be a fun horror movie with literally gallons of blood, spooky visuals, likeable characters, and fun gore effects. Truth be told, it’s one of the better horror remakes of recent memory, and with the rate of remakes in the last twenty years rising exponentially, that’s saying a lot. Up until now, the German Blu-ray release of the film was the best way to view it in high definition. Scream Factory has, of course, surpassed it with excellent extras and a crisp, new transfer. Highly recommended!
- Tim Salmons