House on Haunted Hill (1999) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
One night in the house, one million bucks, no questions asked. But there is a catch for anyone who accepts the offer. Twisted theme park bigshot Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush) is hosting a scary/jokey birthday bash for his wife (Famke Janssen) at an abandoned institute for the criminally insane. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
When we talk about dated media, we tend to use the term in the negative sense. Dated art & entertainment tends to exemplify everything bad about an era. It’s filled to the brim with all of the stylistic gimmicks we learn to hate after they’re shoved down our throats for months and years on end. But, given a long enough passage of time, dated media can become cult media, because bygone gimmicks tend to fall under the banners of nostalgia and ironic enjoyment. And, while the best cult films gain followings for their unique qualities, there are plenty of initially derided movies that earn/deserve a second look, perhaps because of their archaic stylings. I’m not going to crawl out on a limb and claim that William Malone’s remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) was a secret masterpiece or even that it demands reconsideration, but it is the exemplar representation of a short and incredibly specific time frame in American filmmaking. If you’re particularly young, or a pop culture outside, and you’ve found yourself wondering what it was like to consume media between the years 1998 and 2000, House on Haunted Hill is a master class of the era’s best, worst, and most eye-rollingly excessive audio/visual tricks.
When I remember House on Haunted Hill, I remember a medium budget, 90-minute Nu Metal music video that just so happens to be based on a William Castle classic (for the record, this remake actually follows Castle’s movie pretty closely). Then I’d probably recall that it features one of the best casts mustered by any ‘90s horror project. Mallone preps us early with a credit sequence that blends stop motion animation with wildly unimpressive CG animation, then, just in case we didn’t get the hint, he scores the no-frills character intros with Marilyn Manson’s version of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” As a director, he implements ad nauseum a cornucopia of trendy cinematic techniques – skippy frames, quick-cut inserts, speed-ramps, Jacob’s Ladder-style shuddering effects, and an array of faux-multimedia tricks, achieved by switching from colour to black & white, blowing out the hue quality with computer-aided grading, or digitally faking film damage artifacts. On top of this, every scene is cloaked in smoke, dust, and irrational light sources. Its only visual consistency is its utter inconsistency. Mallone’s choices are so sincere that it’s practically impossible to be mad with him when does something silly, like undermining the pacing with a protracted, go-nowhere hallucination sequence, because these style-over-substance tangents and tableaus are exactly the appeal of the film. Dick Beebe’s screenplay (which includes input from Mallone) is a decent reworking of Robb White’s original script and has some really funny lines, but the convoluted, betrayal-laden plot is just a platform for hammy performances and even hammier visual flourishes.
If it had been a completely unwatchable slog with zero entertainment or nostalgia value, House on Haunted Hill would still be an interesting footnote as the first production from Dark Castle Entertainment. Dark Castle is a subdivision of super-producer Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures, the company that brought you the Lethal Weapon franchise, the Die Hard series, and The Matrix trilogy. The fact that, in 1999, Silver was acting producer for this, a movie so of this era that it kind of a joke, and The Matrix – the movie that actually most defines the end of the 20th century – is pretty incredible. His Dark Castle partners included ultra-famous director Robert Zemeckis and writer Jared Bush, who is a big name at Disney these days, not to mention the co-director of Zootopia (2016). Hence the name, the studio was originally designed to remake William Castle movies, which seems really bizarre in retrospect. In the end, they only managed to revamp three of the master huckster’s movies, including this one, Steve Beck’s Thir13en Ghosts (2001), and Jaume Collet-Serra’s House of Wax (2005). House of Wax is probably the best of the three, but it cannot compete with House on Haunted Hill’s triple-A cast.
Come to think of it, House on Haunted Hill’a cast also fits with its quintessential end-of-the-millennium appeal. Lead protagonist Taye Diggs’ career continues unabated into the current day and headliner Geoffrey Rush was about to explode in popularity, following Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), but they were newly-minted “it” actors in 1999, following Diggs’ career-defining role as a cougar trap in Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and Rush’s Best Actor Oscar win for Scott Hicks’ Shine (1996). Both were likely looking to expand their repertoire with a B-horror stint and, while Diggs is forced to rely on latent charms alone as the film’s one consistent good guy, Rush positively devours the scenery, at once paying tribute to and, in some ways, surpassing Vincent Price’s more subdued portrayal in the original film. The rest of the main cast members – Famke Janssen, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Chris Kattan – haven’t had particularly allustrious post-millennial careers. They all continue to work with semi-regularity (except Kattan, who, it must be said, is better here than he ever was or has been since), but they probably deserve better. Oh, and Lisa Loeb, who was scraping the end of her 15 minutes of “Stay (I Missed You)” fame, makes a cameo, too. My only regrets are that genre titan Jeffrey Combs is underutilized and that Larter and Wilson look way too much alike.
Believe it or not, Mallone was not a product of music videos and commercials, though his pre-House on Haunted Hill work was saturated with references to Ridley Scott, who was one of the progenitors of MTV-branded filmmaking. His first two feature films, Scared to Death (1981) and Creature (1985), were more or less Alien (1979) rip-offs, which further drives home the Scott comparisons. After, he moved to television, where he directed one episode each of Tales from the Crypt and Freddy's Nightmares. His Crypt episode, Only Skin Deep (1994), has a sort of budget Tim Burton vibe that feels in tune with House on Haunted Hill’s less dated stylistic embellishments and almost definitely the reason that Zemeckis and Silver – who were also executive producers on the HBO series – hired Mallone in the first place. I suspect that the producers were partially to blame for the 1999 overload, given that it became a short-lived Dark Castle house style. Specifically, Thir13en Ghosts and Beck’s Ghost Ship (2002) utilized many of the same tricks. Mallone’s failed non-Dark Castle follow-up, FeardotCom – a 2002 release that, despite being visually almost identical to House on Haunted Hill, felt like a million year old artefact in the gritty post-9/11 era – more or less marked the end of his career, aside from the stylistically generic Masters of Horror: The Fair Haired Child (2006) and Parasomnia (2008).
It’s also worth noting that House on Haunted Hill is among the first American horror films to leave behind the sometimes oppressive confines of the ‘80s/’90s MPAA’s stance on violence. Perhaps Mallone’s images were so over-the-top and cartoonishly festooned with mixed-media garnishes that the ratings board couldn’t take the content seriously or they noticed that the nastiest bits tended to be neutered by B&W photography, but it’s still incredible that, in three years, the MPAA went from forcing Wes Craven to trim three relatively tame shots from Scream (1996) to allowing this level of fetishistic, Hellraiser-esque gore. It was also a harbinger of what we’d see from more seriously violent horror in the decade to come.
House on Haunted Hill was released on home video the same year that DVD really hit big and, as a result, became a constant player on used shelves in the years that followed. Much to my surprise, this Scream Factory Collector’s Edition is the first North American Blu-ray ever available. Further research reveals that Thir13en Ghosts and Ghost Ship are also only available on foreign Blu-ray. I assumed that Scream Factory had done a new 2K scan of the original film elements (the advertising doesn’t specify if it was camera negative or what) to ensure that their Blu-ray would be an upgrade over previous versions, but now I’m suspecting that they couldn’t find an HD-worthy digital transfer in the WB vaults. The resulting 1:85:1, 1080p transfer isn’t perfect, though a cursory glance at caps from the German BD (via caps-a-holic.com), makes it clear that it is an upgrade in terms of clarity, detail, and, perhaps most importantly, colour timing. Part of House on Haunted Hill’s blatant 1999-ness is its palette choices, which run a long gamut, but tend to be anchored in cool, James Cameron blues, sickly orange/yellow flourishes, and vivid reds. Assuming the samples from the German disc are accurate and similar to Sony’s other European HD releases of the film, previous BDs drained the blues and reds, replacing them with overly-brightened and warmed-over compositions. Scream’s transfer looks like what I remember seeing when I watched the film in theaters and on DVD. Furthermore, despite the iffy smoothing and murkiness of some wide-angle textures, the boosted detail helps balance the elements of darker scenes and actual grain texture (not the weird CG substitutes that are used throughout the film) appear pretty accurate.
House on Haunted Hill is presented in its original 5.1 and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. Digital 5.1 had existed for around seven years by 1999, first popping up in Batman Returns in 1992 and becoming a tentpole obligation the next year when Jurassic Park introduced DTS. However, by 1999, Dolby Digital, DTS, and THX standards were advertising gimmicks. Theaters would include ads for the formats before/between trailers and medium budget movies like House on Haunted Hill were chock full of directional effects and rear channel bric-à-brac. The whole track is busy, but there are some big standouts, such as Janssen’s electro-shock “death,” the isolation chamber zoetrope, and the angry ghost cloud. Don Davis’ score fits the Nu Metal vibe with some bouncy pop themes and truly epic orchestral fare, punched up with wonderful church organ motifs that vibrate the LFE channel.
Interview with director William Malone (37:30, HD) – A substantial discussion with the director that covers everything from the original William Castle movie, to pre-production, writing, set/production design (note: the use of Art Deco is another end-of-the-century flourish as far as I’m concerned, because Batman: The Animated Series had brought it back into vogue), digital/in-camera/prosthetic effects, casting, and more. There is overlap with the archival commentary, but this interview is the preferred anecdotal delivery system.
Interview with composer Don Davis (9:40, HD) – Davis talks about film music, horror movies, and his approach to House on Haunted Hill.
Interview with visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak (18:42, HD) – Skotak gets down to business breaking down the various aspects of miniature model making, mattes, compositing (believe it or not, that oily ghost creature was shot practically then CG composited), practical tricks, and CG clean-up.
Concept art/storyboard galler, behind-the-scenes visual FX gallery, and movie stills/poster gallery
Commentary with director William Malone – The original DVD director’s track is a little awkward, but still relatively informative and charming.
A Tale of Two Houses (19:14, SD) – Given that it was produced in the early days of DVD and feels like it was actually made to show between movies on cable television, this featurette offers a decent making-of the film.
Behind the Visual FX (7:01, SD) – Mallone talks about a couple of FX heavy scenes, but doesn’t have any behind-the-scenes footage to illustrate the discussion.
Three deleted scenes with director intros (12:40, SD)
Trailer and TV spots
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.