The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
Towards the end of the ‘90s, horror was exploring just what it could do with the newest advancement in effects technology. Because a lot of these films featured digital effects that haven’t aged well — or weren’t even that good at the time — there are a number of people who tend to write off a lot of these flicks. One that doesn’t deserve that kind of appraisal is House on Haunted Hill.
That’s partially because House on Haunted Hill isn’t actually loaded with digital effects. According to director William Malone, there are only three fully computer generated effects in the entire film. Everything else is achieved through classic compositing techniques and practical effects. And time has been pretty kind to House on Haunted Hill. Not only in regards to its effects work, but in almost every aspect of the film.
Geoffrey Rush spearheads the whole endeavor as Stephen Price, a wealthy amusement park developer who hosts a birthday party for his disinterested wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen). Of course, the party takes place at an abandoned mental institution for the criminally insane. And the guests are all strangers with a mysterious connection to the house.
Even during its original release, it was hard to deny how solid the ensemble cast was. Rush is magnetic as Price — in a clear tribute to Vincent Price’s turn in the 1959 original — and every moment he gets on screen is electric. Janssen is equally compelling with her deft control of a femme fatale archetype. Add to that fun turns from Chris Kattan (this might be his best performance), Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and genre stalwart Jeffrey Combs. The cast is definitely one of the film’s strongest assets.
But, what really props up House on Haunted Hill is its desire to blend classical horror storytelling with a viciously modern twist. Watching the film today makes it feel like a truly ancient experience as far as its structure and character work are concerned. Some might see this as a negative factor, but it makes the movie work as a faithful update to its 1959 counterpart. Then, the movie surprises with moments of outright surreality as the mystery unfolds and the monsters are revealed.
Malone’s approach to the horror elements is abrasive in the best of ways. We get some genuinely warped creatures — including an unused design from Ghost Story by the legendary Dick Smith — that ends up culminating in a giant entity that’s basically an amalgamation of all the ghosts that exist in the institution. It’s a zany concept that is more effective than its reputation would lead you to believe.
House on Haunted Hill is the kind of studio horror picture that we just don’t get any more. That’s not a dig on the current state of wide release horror, but this kind of classically minded approach is less common than it used to be. Not to mention a tone that walks a tightrope between scary and silly. House on Haunted Hill has plenty of fun to offer and a clear respect of the material it’s working with.