The 13th Floor

A Love Letter to 1999’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

“Six strangers have the chance to make $1,000,000 EACH. All they have to do is make it through the night… ALIVE.”

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was the first production from the newly-formed Dark Castle Entertainment, brought into existence by producers Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silver. Directed by William Malone and released on October 29, 1999, the film managed to open at number one and eventually brought in about double its budget at the box office. Despite not overly impressing critics, it conversely left a mark on certain members of its audience, myself among them.

I’ve always had a particular soft spot for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Back in the archaic days of dial-up internet, I remember waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the trailer to load so I could watch it. To say the least, the successful advertising campaign behind the film had me hooked. Warner Bros even came up with a gimmick that involved handing out scratch-off vouchers to movie patrons, offering them a chance to win some money. For all of Dark Castle Entertainment’s ventures, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was the only film that ever attempted something like that, which was in and of itself a nod to William Castle.

However, being a remake of a classic horror film, one that helped turn Vincent Price into a genre icon, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL had some big shoes to fill, and updating it for a modern audience meant changing a few things. Attempting to keep things simple, nothing about the film’s basic premise was altered substantially. Six people are invited to a haunted house to spend the night, and if they survive, they’ll win a large sum of money. Unfortunately for them, there’s a distinct possibility that they may die before the sun comes up.

The changes that did occur include the amount of money that the characters could potentially receive inflating from $10,000 to $1,000,000, incorporating more background information about the party’s two hosts (Stephen and Evelyn Price), transforming the house into a former mental asylum, and the supposed ghosts turning out to actually be real (in the original film they were not). Otherwise, it’s meant to be just as much of a spook ride as before.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL also managed to nab an impressive cast which included Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Bridget Wilson, and Jeffrey Combs, all of whom brought plenty to their roles. Geoffrey Rush’s look was inspired by John Waters, which in turn made him look more like Vincent Price than the filmmakers had even intended.

One of the biggest stars of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, naturally, was its special effects. Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and even Dick Smith provided much of the film’s grisly content, while genre veteran Robert Skotak (ALIENS and THE TERMINATOR) was instrumental in creating many of the film’s optical effects and blending them with CGI. The latter became a source of contention amongst some horror fans who would have preferred a more practical approach, but I would argue that most CGI in genre movies isn’t always used very creatively or effectively.”The Darkness” (the CGI ghost monster in the film) is an artistic amalgam of images that blend together to give it a particular look. It’s much more imaginatively realized than most CGI ghost effects, and it holds up better because of it.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is also chock-a-block full of atmosphere. Between the practical and optical effects and the set design, it oozes mood it out of every pore. It’s definitely a house that you feel uncomfortable to be in, but at the same time, it’s not so dark and dreary that it has no personality. The scene that opens the film of the mental patients attacking and slaughtering the hospital staff who had been performing barbaric experiments on them sets the film’s mood perfectly. It lets you know that these aren’t just ghosts that are looking to simply frighten you – they’re here to flat out mutilate you. It’s tongue-in-cheek to some degree, but done in a way that’s successfully creepy. Don Davis‘s score, the man behind the music for THE MATRIX trilogy as well as MARILYN MANSON’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, also help in setting the film’s dark but playful atmosphere.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL’s minor success also warranted a sequel eight years later, which unfortunately went straight to home video and wasn’t well-received. However, it did manage to have a sort of gimmick attached to it. It gave you the option of progressing through the film by telling your DVD where you wanted the story to go by clicking through with your remote control, almost like the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE book series. A unique idea, but sadly, it was attached to a film that nobody cared much about.

After HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, William Malone has, so far, only made two more features, FEARDOTCOM and PARASOMINIA, both of which didn’t see as much success as their predecessor. Despite that, Malone is still a mainstay within the genre community, in league with people like Robert Zemeckis, Mick Garris, and Tom McLaughlin. He is also fondly remembered for his TV episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES, and MASTERS OF HORROR, not to mention his earlier film efforts SCARED TO DEATH and CREATURE.

Even with its status as a sort of cult favorite, I’ve always felt that HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was unjustly maligned after its release by folks who didn’t seem to understand it for what it was. Most complained about the CGI without ever really appreciating anything else about it, whereas others who saw it found it to be an enjoyable and atmospheric little haunted house movie with literally gallons of blood, spooky visuals, likable characters, and fun gore effects. Truth be told, it’s one of the better horror remakes that you’re likely to come across, and that’s saying a lot.

Hopefully someday in the near future when the film is finally given its first stateside Blu-ray release, all will be set right. It would be nice to have all of the previous DVD extras, including the brief making-of featurettes and solo audio commentary from William Malone, but it would be even better to get a new behind the scenes documentary, some new audio commentaries, and perhaps even William Malone’s extended cut of the film that would incorporate some of the deleted scenes back into it – something that he has expressed a desire to do. Warner Bros, we’re looking at you. It’s time to give HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL its due.

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