Well, for the next review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d take a break from the comedy genre and re-watch one of my favourite horror movies.
I am, of course, talking about the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”. Surprisingly though, I’ve only seen a few clips of the 1950s film that this movie is based on (the only William Castle film I’ve actually seen is “The Tingler”. In fact, I saw it at the cinema.. but that’s a different story).
Although I first encountered this terrifying, but somewhat overlooked, modern horror classic on late-night TV when I was about fourteen or fifteen (and got a DVD of it a few years later), it has been way too long since I last watched it.
So, without any further ado, let’s visit… the House on Haunted Hill! Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS and CREEPY IMAGERY. Likewise, I should probably warn you that the film itself contains some FLICKERING/ STROBING EFFECTS. (although I don’t know if they’re fast or intense enough to cause problems or not)
“House On Haunted Hill” begins in 1931 at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute For The Criminally Insane. It’s a fairly ordinary evening – the orderlies are doing their rounds and keeping their records up to date, whilst Dr.Vannacutt performs cruel experimental surgery on one of the patients. However, his malevolent dissections are interrupted by a violent riot.
In the ensuing chaos, the institute almost burns to the ground – with very few survivors managing to escape.
Flash forward to the late 1990s and debonair theme park owner Steven Price is showing off his latest attraction, “Terror Incognita”, to the press.
However, his thrilling premiere is interrupted by a phone call from his wife Evelyn who has just seen a segment on TV about the institute and wants to have her birthday soiree there. After an argument, he agrees to it, but decides to rewrite the guest list and make some theatrical alterations to the party to spite Evelyn.
However, when the guests show up to the institute, Steven is shocked to see that they weren’t on his revised guest list. Evelyn doesn’t recognise the guests either. The guests are completely bewildered too. Still, the show must go on.
Given the institute’s horrific history, Steven has decided that he’ll add a bit of spice to the party by promising anyone who manages to stay the night there one million dollars. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the first things that I will say about “House On Haunted Hill” is that it is pretty much a perfect horror movie!
It is an absolutely brilliant mixture of knowing theatricality, vintage-style horror, late 1990s style gothic horror (think J.K.Potter, Cradle Of Filth album covers, Tim Burton, Marilyn Manson etc..), dark humour, creepy set design, psychological horror, suspense and gruesome horror. And, yes, it isn’t a movie for the easily shocked!
Even though this is one of those horror films that will scare you the most when you watch it for the first time, I was still surprised at how creepy this film remains after several viewings. Even when you know what to expect – the atmosphere, style and premise of the film will probably still subtly creep you out.
And, yes, this film has style! I usually wait until near the end of a review to lavish praise on a film’s set design and lighting design – but, this film is often a visual masterpiece!
Not only is it filled with loads of really cool gloomy lighting, but the creepily mysterious institute (which is a chilling mixture of art deco architecture and something a bit more “Silent Hill“-like) is one of the things that really adds a lot of extra atmosphere to the film.
Likewise, this stylishness also extends to the film’s dialogue, which contains some brilliantly witty and acerbic lines. Although this film is a scary one, it doesn’t take itself ultra-seriously either. There’s just enough cynical comedy to lull you into a false sense of security, so that the later parts of the film will be extra scary by contrast.
In addition to the film’s disturbing backstory, one thing that really helps to make this film more creepy and suspenseful is the fact that it’s basically a survival horror videogame in movie form.
If you’ve played games like the original “Resident Evil” or “Alone In The Dark“, you’ll know what I mean by this. Most of the film takes place inside a locked building, where the characters have to fend for themselves. Like an old-school survival horror game, the main focus of the film is on both exploring and trying to escape a dangerous environment.
The scary setting of the film is also complimented by both the cast of characters and the writing. Both Steven and Evelyn are brilliantly theatrical and creepily unpredictable characters. The bitter and acrimonious relationship between them also provides equal amounts of dark comedy and chilling suspense too.
As for the other characters, the institute’s nervous caretaker also helps to add a sense of paranoia to the film. Likewise, the mysterious guests are a mixture between ordinary and eccentric. Seriously, although this film doesn’t contain a gigantic amount of characterisation for some of the characters, both the acting and the characters really help to make this film what it is.
The film’s pacing is really good too, with the narrative remaining fairly focused throughout the film. Likewise, the film uses suspense expertly whilst never feeling too fast-paced or too slow-paced either. Best of all, the film tells a satisfyingly complete story within the space of just 89 minutes too!
In terms of the special effects, they still just about stand the test of time. Even the few CGI elements in the film are dark, subtle and/or mysterious enough to still look ok by modern standards.
Interestingly, although this film contains some very well-made gore effects, it isn’t really that much of a splatter film. Even in the grislier moments, this film often still aims more for “disturbingly creepy/grotesque” rather than “buckets of blood“.
Musically, this film is superb! Not only does the film’s soundtrack contain the kind of gothic orchestral music that is reminiscent of vintage horror movies, but it also contains an absolutely amazing cover version of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” performed by Marilyn Manson. This song plays twice during the film and, on both occasions, it adds instant atmosphere and drama.
All in all, “House On Haunted Hill” is an excellent horror film! The tone, style and atmosphere of it is an absolutely brilliant blend of old-school horror and late 1990s gothic horror.
Not only has it stood the test of time well, but it’s the kind of film that also still has the power to be creepy after repeated viewings. It’s a film that manages to be terrifyingly dramatic whilst not being “ultra-serious” either. It’s also (sort of) the cinematic equivalent of an old-school survival horror videogame too, with a strong focus on scary exploration and constant danger.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.