House On Haunted Hill

House On Haunted Hill (1999)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Bridgette Wilson
Extras: Commentary track, Deleted scenes, Featurettes, Trailers

Over recent months I have really become suspicious, every time a new horror film showed up in theaters or DVD respectively. The reason is quite simple. For the most part, recent horror movies just could not convince with their Generation X approach, their overly obtrusive use of visual effects or even because it turned out that the films were a far cry from the genre after all. As a result of that my excitement was also somewhat limited when Warner Home Video’s recent remake of "House On Haunted Hill" made it to my desk. Only minutes into the movie however I noticed that it turned out to be surprisingly taut and well-done.

Theme park owner Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) is hosting a birthday party for his wife (Famke Janssen). With his twisted sense of humor he plans to play a prank on his wife however and destroys her own guest list, replacing it with his. He is also adding another macabre twist to the party, by choosing an abandoned insane asylum as the setting of the party. When the guests arrive he offers each of them $1 million if they stay and survive the following night in the haunted house.
Soon the scary party is under way much to the delight of the twisted party host, but when people disappear unexpectedly, even he gets a little unnerved. It seems as if there really is a curse on the house and unexplained events put everyone in danger. Hermetically locked from the outside world there is no escape as the house slowly begins to claim its victims and creates a bloodbath among the inhabitants.

While watching "House On Haunted Hill" for the first time in a long while I was witnessing a well-done adaptation of a previously done movie. While the basic storyline is the same as in the 1959 William Castle classic of the same name, the characters, the dramaturgy and the visual style of the film was updated to make it more contemporary. And it is here where most film fail miserably and "House On Haunted Hill" makes good. Although I do not understand why in many contemporary films the characters have to curse continuously and use the F-word in practically every sentence they utter, once you get past that annoyance, the film works quite well.

The movie’s script has been delightfully massaged to make the most of the scenario and pays a nice and subtle homage to William Castle’s film, including the host’s name "Price" in a reference to late legendary actor Vincent Price who played the wicked host in the black and white original. Although not overly deeply developed, the characters in the film work nicely for what they are, mostly out of their instinctual motivations to survive. The plot surrounding the insane asylum with a series of unforeseen twists is skillfully brought to the screen with interesting camerawork and most importantly its impetuous editing style. Much of the horror in the film actually stems from the suggestive visuals rather than open gore, and the almost surreal atmosphere of the house is nicely captured, leaving the viewer in the dark for the most part whether he actually witnesses events unfold, or figments of the characters’ imaginations. In the end, the mix creates a taut and gripping experience that has viewers on the edge of their seats.

Warner’s release features an <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer of the movie in a 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. Very clean and finely delineated, the presentation on this DVD is meticulous and without flaws. No distracting defects in the source print are evident and the powerful color reproduction without edge-enhancement give the movie a very film-like quality. With its deep blacks and good highlights, the film’s presentation is absolutely beautiful, which is even furthered by the absence of any sort of compression artifacts.

The DVD exhibits the biggest problems in the audio department however. Coming with an English <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track, the mix is extremely unbalanced. While music and sound effects are obtrusively loud, the dialogues are hardly understandable. Even under loud listening conditions, the discrepancy between dialogues and music was such that I found myself constantly fumbling for the remote control to adjust the volume level. While this imbalance works in big movie theaters due to the difference in room geometry, size and acoustic characteristics and can be found in an increasing number of new theatrical releases, it is almost unbearable when converted to home theater environments. Like some other studios, Warner Home Video should consider to create near-field remixes of their movies for release on DVD to make sure the inappropriate audio presentation doesn’t hamper the entire movie experience.
The mix itself features a wide and deep sound field with that makes aggressive use of the discrete surround channels. With a wide frequency response the track has quite some bass extension, creating plenty of low ends for the track that will give the shocks more punch. The music is also presented in a very wide mix that engulfs the listener and makes very effective use of the surround channels especially during stingers. By comparison, dialogues sound very flat and overly centered on the release however, hardly reflecting the otherwise aggressive mix.

The disc contains a good <$commentary,commentary track> by director William Malone. It is obvious from the track that he is very proud of the film and enjoys talking about it. Offering a lot of very interesting insight into the production, the filmmaking process and the way he approached the movie in general, this <$commentary,commentary track> makes a great addition to the release. Without notable pauses he discusses his thoughts and ideas about the movie and the relaxed and flowing feel of the commentary makes it very enjoyable.

A 20-minute documentary is also part of the release, featuring interviews with director William Malone and turns out to be a nice comparison between Malone’s film and the William Castle classic. The disc also features a series of special effects featurettes in which director William Malone explains in quite some detail how certain scenes have been realized. But the disc also contains a gimmick feature called "The Chamber" that is nothing short of zany and completely in sync with the movie. Check it out when you get the disc to see what it may feel like to be brainwashed. Three deleted scenes are also part of the package, each with an introduction by the director. Not only does he explain the purpose of each scene but also why it was deleted, which gives some nice additional insight into the filmmaking process, where a few seconds additional running time can be just as much of an issue as overly graphic effects. You will also find the theatrical trailers to his and William Castle’s 1959 version of the film on this DVD.

On the DVD-ROM front the disc also has some interesting things to offer. Apart from the archived website, it appears as if web events are planned for this release, and some extensive and well-researched text information about the horror genre adds an incredible wealth of information to the disc. A small game can also be found on the disc that is quite entertaining and uses footage from the movie to create the same creepy atmosphere.

As it turned out, "House On Haunted Hill" was much better than I had hoped for. It pulled me in from the opening minutes at the theme park, and kept me in its grip until the final minutes. Nicely paced with atmospheric visuals and some great shocks, the movie is very stylish and freakishly horrific. If the sound mix were more balanced, Warner home Video had a full winner on their hands, but I’m afraid many of you will not be able to fully enjoy the film in its beauty because of the constant struggle with the volume control. Other than that, join the party. It is a lot of bloody fun!