The House on Haunted Hill

Directed by William Malone
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan.
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence and gore, sexual images and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
October 29, 1999

Last week, in my review of The Best Man, I was singing the praises of Taye Diggs. Well, I realized I wasn't alone in my admiration, when his first starring turn hit number one at the box office. If I told you that I wasn't surprised, I'd be lying. I also mentioned that his next role would be in this film, his first mass-market "popcorn" movie. Hopefully, with the success from last week, people will just forget about this momentary setback, and better yet: ignore it altogether.

A schlock engineer for the small screen, William Malone, has gone Hollywood to remake the 1958 film The House on Haunted Hill, which starred Vincent Price. This time, Geoffrey Rush plays Steven Price (get it?), an amusement park tycoon that designs sadistically scary rides. He and his wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), have planned to invite five people to haunted house for a contest. All they have to do is spend the night, and who ever is still alive gets their share of five million dollars.

But, this isn't any old haunted house. It was originally an asylum for the criminally insane, and is now haunted by ghosts of dead inmates and the (ironically) demented Dr. Vannacutt, who founded the asylum. Four people show up (wasn't it supposed to be five?), played by Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, and Peter Gallagher (I won't bother describing their "characters"). Also, there is the owner of the house, Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), who fails to get his rental fee from the Prices before the entire building is sealed by big steel plates over the windows and doors. As you have surely guessed, the ghosts are very dangerous, and a bunch of these people get killed.

Yep, that's all there is to it, but what did you expect? Rush seems to be in a real hurry to end his career. After his exemplary performances in Shine, Elizabeth, and Shakespeare in Love, he has forced upon us Mystery Men, and now this half-hearted impression of Vincent Price. At least he didn't appear to be taking it seriously, but he should know better than to be taking projects like these.

Like The Haunting, this film suffers from being extremely old-fashioned in a modern context. Malone seems to have made it a point to include enough nudity and foul language to get an R rating, when this film could have benefitted enormously from a PG-13. There are maybe one or two instances of genuine frights, but there is no suspense to speak of. It just sort of moves along, killing off people every so often, but the murders are telegraphed an average of 30 seconds each time. Since we don't care about the characters, and we are eased into learning that they are going to die, the whole point of this "horror" film is lost.

There is one positive thing I can say about this new version of The House on Haunted Hill. Diggs actually gets to play the hero, not just "The Black Guy" (like León in Bats). In fact, his race is never mentioned, which is actually a good sign for his career. The fact that he was cast in a racially ambiguous major role in a studio film will give him a greater opportunity to pursue stardom in Hollywood. Let's just hope that he reaches a level of celebrity where he won't have to make anything like this again.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
The House On Haunted Hill (1999) -- VHS
The House On Haunted Hill (1999) -- DVD
The House On Haunted Hill: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan