Plot: Evelyn (Famke Janssen) is about to celebrate another birthday and she has grand plans for this year, as she wants her eccentric husband Stephen (Geoffrey Rush) to throw her a bash at the Vanacutt Institution. The asylum has been shut down for decades after some horrific medical experiments were revealed, but it remains an infamous locale thanks to rumors of malicious spirits on the loose there. Stephen loves to scare people, so it seems like a natural fit so he plans the event, but somehow the guests that show up are not the ones Evelyn requested. As it turns out, a group of strangers wound up invited to the asylum with a promise that if they could survive the night, they’d be given a check for a cool million bucks. Everyone assumes Stephen has lined up a night of intense scares, but when it starts to like even he is in the dark about the evening’s festivities, who will survive the house on haunted hill?
Entertainment Value: William Castle’s original House on Haunted Hill is a lot of fun and features Vincent Price chewing scenes, so this remake had an uphill climb, but it is more than solid for a horror rehash. This is in large part because the movie rarely takes itself seriously and dials into the camp style humor of the original, though it never finds just the right sweet spot. The narrative is typical stuff, not memorable, but it sets up what needs to happen and the asylum locale adds to the entertainment, though the crazed doctor element feels lame. I don’t love that thread and how it takes over the film, but it is always nice to see Jeffrey Combs and he conveys more than enough creepiness in his appearances. The rest of the cast is solid, with a cast of then-young talents rallied around Famke Janssen’s melodramatic turn and Geoffrey Rush, who clearly had fun in an over the top performance. I dislike the conclusion, but the ride to get there is worth taking and manages to overcome a lot of the remake pitfalls, so this is one of the instances where that approach works. The movie wanes in the times it tries to be serious or deliver real scares, but when it focuses on camp, wild performances, and darker humor, there’s some solid fun to be had. So while most remakes fall flat, this one comes through and earns a recommendation.
The movie has some brief, very fragmented style topless shots, obscured by quick cuts, flashing lights, and other visual tricks. So some light sleaze is present, but it isn’t a focus and is infrequent in appearance. A few nice bursts of bloodshed, but most of the violence happens off screen. In other words, we see the aftermath or stained clothes, but miss out on the fun stuff. But we do have a nice surgical incision that cuts nice and deep, a couple of stab session that looks quite cool, with scalpels and pencils put to good use. I wish more of the kills were kinetic violence, rather than off screen deaths, but at least there’s a little blood present. The dialogue has some high points, usually when Rush dials up his performance or unleashes melodrama in scenes with Janssen, as the two have great back and forth banter. Rush manages to pull some decent exchanges out of most of the cast at one point or another, however. On the craziness front, the light melodrama and wild performances stand out, but otherwise this one just a slight camp edge, just never ramped to ridiculous levels.
Overall Insanity: 2/10
The Disc: This Blu-ray release from Scream Factory boasts a new 2k scan from the original interpositive, which yields a significant upgrade over previous editions and fans should be more than satisfied. The image looks sharp and features great fine detail, as well as natural grain and mostly clear, clean visuals. The contrast is spot on in most scenes, though some of the film’s darkest sequences can look a little rough, but not to an extreme degree. Overall this is a terrific new presentation that looks impressive, so you can ditch the old versions. New extras include an insightful half hour interview with director William Malone and a ten minute piece with composer Don Davis, while archival supplements include two behind the scenes featurettes, one focused on the visual effects, some deleted scenes, tv spots, and the film’s trailer.