While horror remakes proved mostly creatively bankrupt amidst the 1990s glut, perhaps none fumbled as completely as the 1999 revamp of William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill. Geoffrey Rush gamely attempts to fill Vincent Price’s polished loafers, but lacks the necessary charisma in this abysmal update that scarcely improves upon a single element.
Directed by Dark Castle’s B-movie journeyman William Malone, this garish remake magnifies all the original’s minimalist strengths into cartoonish weaknesses. Malone mistakes sensory audiovisual overload for skin-crawling atmosphere, assaulting the viewer with overblown CGI phantoms and cheap jump scares. Castle’s clever use of practical effects and suggestion created far more memorable chills on every level.
Rush feels woefully miscast as Steven Price, the eccentric millionaire offering a group money to survive the night in a reputedly haunted asylum. Whereas Price balanced cunning dry wit with a sinister, calculated edge, Rush comes off as simply obnoxious. He and the thin supporting characters are pure monster fodder rather than compelling protagonists worth investing in.
The remake also discards the original’s masterfully intricate plot in favor of dull haunted asylum backstory and muddled mystical nonsense regarding an evil doctor’s experiments. All subtlety gets crushed beneath convoluted myth-building and bombastic CGI spectacle. The concept of unknown terrors proves far creepier than anything CGI can conjure.
This misguided makeover opts for cheap sensory jolts like exaggerated “ghost morphing” visuals that demonstrate the worst CGI from the late 1990s. The manor’s elaborate Rube Goldberg-style contraptions feel more at home in a bad horror-themed funhouse than a terrifying haunted estate. Restraint gave way to shameless exhibition under Malone’s ham-fisted guidance.
Perhaps the most grievous offense comes in the form of pop singer Ali Larter as the new “final girl”, replacing Carol Ohmart’s deliciously icy original femme fatale. Larter proves woefully incapable of conveying the psychology necessary to sell the story’s ludicrous final act twist. Her phoned-in shrieks make one yearn for the sinister depths of Ohmart’s performance.
The remake seemingly learned all the wrong lessons regarding why Castle’s B-movie blueprint worked so devilishly well. Claustrophobic black-and-white cinematography steeped the original in otherworldly atmosphere. By contrast, Malone’s slick, color-drenched take looks garishly synthetic. Less definitely proved more in the shadowy corridors of the original’s moved miniatures and soundstage.
Why filmmakers felt the need to “improve” upon House on Haunted Hill’s devilishly simple formula by inflating it into an overproduced theme park ride remains a mystery. The bare essentials made Castle’s version iconic. Perhaps at the time, producers thought slick CGI and loud jump scares were mandatory for 90s horror hits. But all spectacle and no substance makes for a hollow haunted house indeed.
By pointlessly remaking a horror classic in splashy modern style yet discarding everything intrinsically memorable, Dark Castle’s House on Haunted Hill encapsulates so much of what made 90s horror remakes creatively bankrupt cash grabs. The inflated scares and mythology bloat the premise instead of sharpening its efficient storytelling. It lacks identity compared to William Castle’s macabre vision.
Other doomed remakes like Psycho at least paid slavish homage to their inspirations despite their creative redundancy. But this Haunted Hill appears ashamed of the B-movie roots that made the material iconic, instead sanding down the provocative edges in pursuit of popcorn superficiality. We don’t remember Vincent Price’s House for being tasteful or polished. Charm came from its delicious opposites.
Perhaps if the filmmakers embraced the outrageous spirit of William Castle’s gimmick-filled promotional genius rather than just remaking his most famous hit devoid of personality, this remake could have captured deranged magic. Instead, slick production values smothered Castle’s delightfully crude ingenuity. No amount of CGI can resurrect the gonzo soul buried beneath this aseptic spectacle.