William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill (1999) was the first film from Dark Castle Productions. The original notion behind the production house seems to have been to make modern versions of old William Castle films, an idea that seems to have died the moment Thir13en Ghosts (2001) failed to duplicate the box office success of this film. Make no mistake, House on Haunted Hill isn’t a great movie. It is, however, a good deal of gory fun—one that is blessedly free of a cast of teenagers, and one that is actually much better than the film it’s remaking. I can hear the nostalgia folks muttering threats already, but the 1959 original is pure cheese and—once it gets away from its Frank Lloyd Wright exterior—the interiors are all crummy old-dark-soundstage trappings and flat TV-looking lighting. The house here is astonishingly creepy, very atmospheric and architecturally dubious—not that the last matters much, but I can’t begin to imagine the floorplan. The new film follows the basics fairly closely, but it elaborates on everything from the characters to the events. It still has people agreeing to spend the night in a creepy old house—with the ante upped from $10,000 to a million—and the fact that this joint is a lot more unsettling perhaps accounting for the inflation. Geoffrey Rush—complete with dashing mustache—inherits the Vincent Price role of the host. The only other cast member to really evoke the originals is Chris Kattan in the old Elisha Cook Jr. part (Kattan may now be said to be the Cook of his day—probably not an accolade he was hoping for). This is also a much bloodier film than the original. It does have the same aura—actually as much suggested or glimpsed as truly depicting something truly nasty going on—that has marked all the William Malone movies I’ve seen. The period insane asylum opening and the occasional flashes back to its horrors are surprisingly unsettling.
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