House on Haunted Hill
directed by William Malone
(Warner Bros., 1999)

Characters in horror movies never learn the basic rule of survival: stick together.

The characters in House on Haunted Hill (a remake of the 1958 original starring Vincent Price) are smart enough to figure that out near the beginning. But, after acknowledging the collective wisdom of staying put, they all wander off alone or in pairs anyway to get themselves lost, frightened and/or killed. Don't these people ever watch movies?

The setting -- an abandoned insane asylum where unspeakable atrocities occurred -- is a good one, if a bit cliched. The plot -- an eccentric millionaire offers wads of cash to a bunch of strangers who survive a night in the place -- is equally strong, if hackneyed. The cast -- Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher and Bridgette Wilson -- is excellent. Especially good is Rush as the flambuoyant theme park mogul Steven Price, who plays the role with a thick slice of delicious ham and is a dead ringer for the late, great Vincent.

So what went wrong?

Somewhere along the way, filmmakers forgot that it's the story, not the special effects, that make a movie truly scary. The film builds nicely, with some scenes of genuine horror and creepiness. Those prone to nightmares may take some imagery home with them. But instead of sticking with a stylish and psychological theme that works, House goes for a big evil that utterly wrecks the climax and finale.

A clue for the director: you had us with the inexpensive effects involving the evil shrink, Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs), but you lost us with the big-budget CGI creepshow that followed. Throwing money at a movie doesn't promise success. Grossness evokes disgust, not fright. And when "exciting" plot twists stop making sense, you need to rethink your strategy.

Besides Rush, the film benefits from particularly good performances from Kattan as the nervous young property owner, Larter as the girl next door in peril, and Diggs as the reluctant but earnest hero.

Still, an actor can only be as good as the material, and this script ran out of gas halfway home.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 March 2003

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