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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

House On Haunted Hill (1999)

(aka: Haunted Hill)



Reviews and Comments

It's unfortunate that there are good qualities of this movie, not the least of which is Geoffrey Rush's fantastic performance and lunatic character, because they're wasted in a truly wretched finished whole. Horror works when it plays off our fear of the unknown. We fear that which is unknown, because there is no limit to the potential of how terrible the unknown may turn out to be. House On Haunted Hill makes a subtle miscalculation and tries to scare us not by the unknown but by the unknowable. There are no rules to the horror in House On Haunted Hill. Unnatural things happen, and clearly we are supposed to be frightened by them, but the truth of the matter is there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the motives or abilities of the evil forces at work.

Likewise, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the motives or abilities of the human characters, either. A group of strangers are invited to a birthday party in a spooky mansion. Why did they come at all? Why, upon arriving, do they not do the sensible thing and turn around again? Why, when their host starts speaking of people dying in the night, are none of them particularly disturbed or horrified? The host has a plan in store for them -- he intends to scare the living daylights out of them for kicks, apparently -- but we never witness any of it in action. When a freakish and nearly deadly accident occurs that we can't imagine the host to have arranged, he takes credit for it.

The movie continues with scene after scene of not quite explicable events. Gruesomeness is substituted for terror. Attempts are made to induce horror by exposing the darker side of humanity, but the evil characters in this movie have no other side. As such, they are not compelling at all but simply cardboard cut-out parts of the scenery, added in for color. Paradoxically, we wish for this confused plot and unknowable evil to be given some form of explanation, yet whenever secrets are revealed, we don't care at all. They're the wrong secrets. There is more than enough "what" to go around already. All I want to know is "why."

This film is a remake of an infamous but not very good B movie from 1958. That movie, at the very least, knew that it was cheesy and happily indulged in gimmicky devices in a spirit of fun. This remake aspires for more but understands less.

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