William Castle was one of the great showmen of cinema, a creator of cheesy
horror features who once said he modelled his career on that of P.T. Barnum.
The gimmicks Castle used to market his films would make a good movie in
themselves -- he once, for example, arrived at one of his premieres in a
coffin, delivered by a hearse.
Far more characteristic for Castle were mechanical tricks such as 'Percepto',
whereby people would get a signal that a monster was loose in the auditorium,
and the only way to kill it was to scream. His 1958 film "House on Haunted
Hill" boasted 'Emergo', a system of fitting theatres with huge plastic
skeletons that would jump out on unsuspecting members of the audience.
It is probably impossible to recapture Castle's unique brand of
stunt-orientated entertainment for today's moviegoers. Gone are the days when
cinemas would consider letting you fit seatbelts or electro-shock buzzers in
their seats, and it's doubtful that savvy modern kids would respond to
B-movies as enthusiastically as youngsters did in the 1950s.
The new remake of "House on Haunted Hill", which has been directed by William
Malone and produced by Hollywood giant Joel Silver, is an admirable if not
completely successful attempt to get into the spirit of Castle's genre. It
has few ironic references, and most of the actors don't go to great lengths
to point out that their tongues are in their cheeks -- the movie really does
play like an attempt to scare us using grotesquely over-the-top atmosphere
and fairground techniques. We only know the filmmakers aren't that stupid
because we trust nobody would ever expect us to take this schlock seriously.
The characters are a goofy bunch, perfunctorily thrown together in accordance
with some hack screenwriter's manual. You've got a dumb blonde (Bridgette
Wilson) and a smart one (Ali Larter); a cheap, goofy loser (Chris Kattan) and
an affluent professional (Peter Gallagher); and a wise-cracking tough guy
(Taye Diggs), who also happens to be the token black character, as all the
others are white and there isn't really room for anyone else. These kids find
themselves invited to a spooky mansion that used to be an asylum, by
eccentric zillionaire Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush). He makes an offer of one
million dollars... "To whoever can survive the night!"
Price is an innovator in theme-park design, you see, who loves his work and
gets a kick out of scaring people in new and exciting ways. He has rigged the
house with perilous gadgets galore in order to do this, too, but -- need I
even say it? -- the house really does turn out to be filled with evil
spirits, and all the characters find themselves fighting for their lives.
Rush gives a good performance here, with a sly, trailing voice that is
perfect for relishing his odd, playful lines -- his character is the kind
who, if asked whether a phone call is business or pleasure, would give a
twisted grin before responding "Neither... it's my wife!" He has a crazy
little moustache that was grown to be twirled, and bushy eyebrows meant for
raising. Rush is the only big star in the picture, and that's a nice touch,
as Vincent Price had the same distinction, and the same role, in the original.
Other visual and aural treats arise from the haunting itself -- to be honest,
a few of them really did creep me out in some basic, crude way. We see the
passageways of the house as grimy, labyrinthine, ominous; the soundtrack
manipulates the rear speakers brilliantly, giving us the sensation that
sinister whispers, scratches and squeals are happening in the aisles of our
I was not as endeared by the human violence in the movie -- much of it is
inappropriately gruesome, in contrast to the innocence of the supernatural
gore. And the film never quite goes as far off the rails as it should --
those original B-movies, you will recall, resembled loud protests against
refinement, craftsmanship and good taste.
Still, I'm impressed that the film is watchable at all. Remakes and horror
movies are so hard to do right they're disaster areas for filmmakers, and
embarking on a horror remake is like actively seeking public embarrassment.
"House on Haunted Hill" was critically savaged in the States, where it was
seen as a slapped-together attempt to cash in on Halloween. That's unfair --
it's a lot more sophisticated than the adverts suggest. I didn't exactly like
it, but it's hard not to have some affection for it; no film that reminds me
of dear old William Castle can be all that bad.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic