The Original Haunted Palace Rebuilt (House on Haunted Hill, 1999)

House_on_Haunted_Hill_1999_Poster1999’s remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill began a series of remakes of mid to late 1950’s horror films. This one keeps the core idea.  An eccentric rich man and his estranged wife throw a party, offering a million dollars to whomever lives through the night.

Stephen Price is an amusement park owner with a rather disturbed relationship with his devious wife Evelyn.  She wants a party thrown in the restored Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane.  Years ago it was run by Dr. Vannacutt who performed ghoulish and cruel experiments.  One night his patients revolted, violently killing the Dr and his staff.  The Doctor’s last act was to set of a mechanism that locked down the entire facility and set it ablaze, killing all but five employees.

After dumping his wife’s party guest list for his own, Price does not notice the list changes yet again.  When the guests arrive, both Stephen and Evelyn are shocked as they do not recognize them.  Everyone is greeted by Pritchett, the nervous caretaker who tells everyone just how many people have died there. He wants his money and plans to leave.  He refuses to stay in the asylum overnight.  But he gets trapped with the confused guests: movie executive Sara, athlete Eddie, disgraced reporter Melissa and the Doctor Blackburn.  Everyone has secrets and deceptions.  When the planned horror get overtaken by the ghosts and demons of the fortress it becomes a battle for survival.

Geoffrey Rush does a great job as the Vincent Price inspired role of Price and his poisonous banter with with Famke Janssen’s Evelyn is every bit as biting as in the original film.  This part is almost purely lifted from the original film, especially the dialog.

The changes from the original allow for surprises and while the heavy use of digital effects are somewhat dated, they do some creative things.  The dark spirit that represents the house is made of human bodies intertwining to create a unique shape.  Jeffrey Combs has no lines, but his diabolical doctor is effectively chilling.

The addition of the asylum backstory allows for a creepy vibe, as well as the updated addition of how the guests were selected.  Chris Kattan is the primary comic relief, and I found his Pritchett to have a bit more vibrant of a personality than in the original.

The remake also manages to give the audience information a bit better than the original, relying on in story moments rather than talking heads.  The film also opens with the asylum revolt, turning into an unsolved mysteries type of show (hosted by Peter Graves!) story about the devastation, which is very well done.

Overall, House On Haunted Hill is a pretty effective remake, both fun and exciting.

Dark Places (Cellar Dweller, 1988)

cellar_dweller_vhs1988’s Cellar Dweller is a direct to video horror flick that remain pretty largely forgotten.  I actually remember seeing it on video store shelves, but never got around to renting it.  And when DVD exploded, among the many films that made the transition, this was not one.

It tells the tale of a young art student, Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino), who is attending an art institute that is located in the former home of her favorite comic book artist.  30 years prior, Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs) realized his imagination was coming to life…as he drew horror comics, this could be bad news.  He set fire to cellar to destroy what his mind brought forth.

Whitney discovers his work in the cellar and begs the woman running the institute, Mrs Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo) to set up shop in the seller.  Briggs seems to not care for Whitney and sends her rival Amanda (an aspiring journalist) to spy on her.

As people start to die at the hands of the monster in Whitney’s and Childress’ art, Whitney confronts Mrs. Briggs, certain that she has it out for her (and rightly so).  But soon, the demon in the comics seems to take over, beyond the control of Whitney’s imagination.

The film relies heavily on comic art, which frankly is not that impressive.  Also, watching Jeffrey Combs in the beginning inking already fully inked art makes it pretty obvious he was not an artist…he moves his hands like someone pretending to conduct music.  The jumps between Whitney drawing and the monster killing victims is awkward, because there is no way she would pencil and ink at the pace of the monster’s killing.

There is also an odd choice to use cartoonish sound effects during scenes where the monster is killing people.  It detracts from the moment.

The monster is pretty decent looking considering when the film was made.  This is not to surprising, as director John Carl Buechler started as an effects guy, and a pretty solid one.  The monster actually was recognizable as a Buechler creation (and looks not unlike something from his films Ghoulies 3: Choulies Go to College or Troll).

The films biggest downfall is in the story.  It is an interesting concept that gets downright confusing in the end.  Did she create her fellow students?  Is she killing them? Is it the monster feeding off her imagination?  With a better script (the film is written by Chucky creator Don Mancini) that put the concept to stronger use this might not have been a film that fell between the cracks of horror history.

Shout! Factory has released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of a double feature set.  There are no bonus features for the film.  The HD transfer came from a single remaining print from a private collection, so the picture is not perfect, but it still looks quite good.

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