House on Haunted Hill


Year: 1999
Director: William Malone
Music: Don Davis
Starring: Geoffery Rush, Ali Larter, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Bridgette Wilson, Chris Kattan, Jeffrey Combs

Sure is a funky old house, ain’t it?

ack in my youth when I was working at my local movie theatre I got wind of a new horror movie coming out just a few days before Halloween of that year. It was a remake of a cult classic Vincent Price film and more importantly to me it had the great Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) in it. I’ve been a huge fan of Combs since my first VHS rental, which was Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and I will always catch a film or television show that Combs happens to be in.
Now back in those days the manager of the theatre was required to screen the movie the night before its release just to make sure there were no technical issues with the sound or incorrect splicing of the reels but the staff was allowed to watch it with as well, it very much had a community feeling to it, people brought pizza and sodas, etc.

On the night we received the film canisters from FedEx it was pouring cats and dogs, thunder was shaking the building, and we ALL were jazzed that a new horror movie was on the schedule. The last movie reel had stopped spinning, the customers were gone, and we had finished up checking the ‘houses’ to make sure no one was hiding behind the screens or in the bathroom stalls and the managers were in the office getting the day’s take ready for deposit. After that is was time for everyone to crowd into the theatre and hopefully watch a film that in this case would give us some nice scares…

It did.

We start off looking upon an imposing white colored structure built into a cliff face, what we later learn, is Los Angeles in 1931. An orderly (Dick Beebe, writer of the film) starts his night shift at the Vannacut Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane and as he sharpens a handful of pencils within his caged security room we are introduced to Dr. Richard Vannacut (Combs) along with his three female nurses who are busy assisting him as he ‘operates’ on one of their patients…without the benefit of anesthesia. While one nurse cranks a movie camera to insure that the procedure is fully documented we hear laughter and screams that are not coming from the poor man strapped to the gurney before them, it is up above the operating theater, and as Vannacut glances up in alarm we see distorted through the skylight multiple patients looking down upon them. Meanwhile at the security room as the orderly is doing his paperwork, he notices an inmate staring at him from the other side of the wire mesh. He pays it no heed and merely shakes his head but unbeknownst to him there are inmates pressed against the glass of the entrance door behind him. The orderly stops his work to turn and glance behind and that is when the mob of lunatic inmates shatter the glass and rush in, grabbing the orderly they pull him down and a patient in blood frenzy picks up the sharpened pencils and stabs the man through the neck. After smashing the security controls which release all the door locks in the place, the freed lunatics rush to the operating theater, bursting through the door. Vannacut immediately rushes to the side of the room and engages the lock down mechanism to seal everyone inside the Institute. Which is bad timing on the inmates part to start a fire. The lunatic descend upon the nurse, killing the camera operator, and while another is drowned the third is placed on the gurney beside Vannacut. Then they begin to take out their suffering, giving them a taste of what they’ve had to endure.

We then find ourselves watching a newsreel of the aftermath of the previous events, one of the inmates took over the duties on the abandoned movie camera as the Institute burned, as part of a television show, Terrifying But True, hosted by Peter Graves and he informs us, “that there are many that claim the ghosts of Vannacut and those who died that night still live within the walls of the house on haunted hill.” This is how we are introduced to Evelyn Stockard-Price (Janssen) who is lounging in her luxurious bathtub while watching the television program. She is intrigued by the place and calls her husband, Stephen H. Price (Rush). Stephen is in the middle of being interviewed about his upcoming roller coaster ride, Terra Incognita, as he walks through the park, and the brief conversation they have on his cell phone tells us that this is not a happy relationship. The reporter (Lisa Loeb) and her cameraman (James Marsters) question him about safety concerns for the ride…it seems that the opening of the park had been delayed from its original date, rumors saying that it was due to an almost fatal accident on the ride. Stephen laughs it off as he is a complete showman, “I wouldn’t be opening this place tomorrow if every single thing down to the beheaded beanie babies hadn’t tested one hundred percent safe.”
While the two reporters are occupied on the ride, Stephen calls his wife back and finds out that she demands to have her birthday party up at the former Institute, we get the idea that she would never take no for an answer, and her husband will find her guest list on his desk. Stephen grudgingly agrees to her request but decides to completely delete Evelyn’s list and make his own…but after leaving his office we witness that someone or something decides to alter the list a bit further.

Next we see a montage (set to Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams) of the guests on that new list, Eddie Baker (Diggs), Donald W. Blackburn (Gallagher), Sara Wolfe (Larter), and Melissa Margaret Marr (Wilson) who is pretending to be her boss, Jennifer Jenzen (Debi Mazar, in a deleted scene on the DVD), as they all arrive in limos to the gates of the Vannacut Institute, during which we see the inside of the invitation for the guests which reads:

Stephen H. Price
Commands You To Attend
A Very Unique
Birthday Celebration For
Mrs. Evelyn Stockard-Price

Perhaps Even
Will Be The Entertainment
With One Million Dollars Paid
To Those That Survive The Entire Night
Inside The Walls Of
The House On Haunted Hill

At the gates the group of strangers are met by Watson Prichett (Kattan) who is evidently very nervous about being at the Institute especially after dark. We later learn that his grandfather bought the place after the disaster in 1931, and died during its reconstruction, as did Prichett’s father…all supposedly accidents though the nervous man clearly thinks otherwise.
Prichett informs them he is supposed to take them up to the Institute and after being unable to answer any of their questions regarding the validity of the offered money, or why they were all send invitations, he at last succeeds in guiding them by flashlight up the long trail where the now brightly lit building looms over them. As they enter the Institute the guests cannot help but notice the very nightmarish stained glass window, leering maniacal faces, above the lobby. Blackburn smarts that it must be something that Price’s came up with to unnerve them but Prichett informs them that the stained glass was part of the original building it is in fact from the medieval period, Vannacut apparently found it inspirational…which is not surprising from what we know about the man.
Evelyn arrives a short while later and is confused and more than put off by the strangers who have arrived for her party, the vulgar insults she hurls though are interrupted as the stained glass erupts above and a quick tackle by Baker is the only thing that keeps her from being impaled.
Stephen then makes his appearance and we see just how bad the Prices’s marriage really is as wonderfully humorous barbs are traded back and forth between them as they leave the guests to discuss their private matters in the bedroom. When Stephen returns to the party, alone, he is confronted by Prichett who demands his money. Price is about to give him his check when he informs the group that to collect their money they need merely stay the entire night and of course still be alive come the morn, anyone that leaves or is deceased, their check will be divided up amongst the survivors. As Stephen is making out Prichett’s check he realizes he doesn’t know who the people are standing in front of him. We find out that Baker was a former ball player, Blackburn is a Doctor, Wolfe had a television show and is looking for a way to get another one, and Marr/Jenzen is a Hollywood executive. Prichett meanwhile hilariously takes his stand and demands that Stephen pays him, even refusing the possibility of earning a million dollars himself if he stays the night. As soon as the check is in his hand, Prichett starts to walk out of the building…but there is a terrible groaning from within the building as the lock down mechanism begins to grind to life on its own. Prichett understandably doesn’t take this well as he tries to flee for his life, just missing his chance as a heavy steel shutter blocks off the exit while similar shutters cover the windows of the entire Institute.
Evelyn makes her return appearance and she admits that it even scared her for a moment. Stephen swears he has had nothing to do with it but his wife asks if everyone knows how he makes his living, trying to assure the guests that everything they see tonight is designed for scares, which would also mean she is trying to make sure that Stephen has to pay up at the end of the night. Of course Evelyn is…mostly wrong in this case…after talking with a now miserable Prichett the trapped guests decide to try to get the lock down reversed, they’ll split up and search the basement for the machinery that will open the shutters.

Here we stop with the spoilers because at this point is where the scares start proper. When you see the film make sure to turn off all the lights and possibly turn up the sound just a bit, especially if you have surround sound. I’m very proud to have this DVD in my collection and if after watching it you want to add it yours as well then you can easily find it for a couple of bucks at most retail stores. This film is not a bad way to spend an October evening as Halloween approaches.

To continue with the story I had started of when I worked at the theatre, after we watched the movie and were talking rather giddily about certain scenes, a great thundering boom shook the building again…and the lights went out. So we were plunged into total darkness and had to feel our way by hand until we reached the auditorium doors, thankfully no one decided to scream or try to make us jump. It definitely added a nice memory to the screening of the film.

Kattan easily steals the movie when he is in the scene by the way, because you really do feel for the poor guy with how terrified he is of the place. Of course everyone does a very good job with their parts but Rush really channels some true Vincent Price in certain scenes. A bit of trivia, even though in the film he resembles Price himself…he actually was trying to look like director John Waters. William Malone saw his tests and decided to keep him as he was to honor the great actor.

I would like to add, since this was the first Dark Castle film, that I really loved the roaring Gargoyle mascot that Dark Castle Entertainment has, I always smile when a movie is beginning and that logo pops up. Don Davis did a fantastic job on the score, one that I still listen to when I want to get into a creepy mood while writing late at night.

The only knock I have with William Malone’s wonderful direction of the film is the manifestation of the Evil at the end of the movie, it feels like they probably ran out of money and time, to be honest. So I give House on Haunted Hill a solid four and a half pumpkins out of five.

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Editor at Retroist
Searching through the alleys for useful knowledge in the city of Nostalgia. Huge cinema fanatic and sometimes carrier of the flame for the weirding ways of 80s gaming, toys, and television. When his wife lets him he is quite happy sitting in the corner eating buckets of beef jerky.

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