There is Something Rotten in the State of ‘Joshua’ [Formative Fears]


Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

Would there be “The Great 2000s Boom” of horror remakes without William Malone’s pre-Y2K House on Haunted Hill trendsetter? Undoubtedly, but what’s the fun of starting any piece without an inflammatory claim based on a smidgen of believability. Before Dark Castle Entertainment ushered “old-school horror into a new millennium” with Thir13en Ghosts, another William Castle classic would close out the 90s with a revamped contest to outlast a haunted house’s threats. Before Freddy faceplanted, Jason hired a lawyer, and “The Hitcher” caught another lift, an ode to Vincent Price would lead the charge as remakes became the newest en vogue horror trend—whether coincidental or influential.

I remain in awe of Dark Castle’s commitment to budgetary freedoms when it came to their early remakes, based on the price tag of $37 million for House on Haunted Hill. There’s a reason why Malone’s exquisitely dangerous game and 2001’s Thir13en Ghosts remain not-so-secret sleepover gems of the aughts—just compare production values. Over the years that Blumhouse has since demonstrated its genre dominance, there’s been a ripple effect as outside horror producers aim to squeeze spending and maximize profits because, generally, Friday night frighteners will dependably turn their profits based on committed thrillseeker fanbases. They don’t make ‘em like House on Haunted Hill or Thir13en Ghosts, and that’s exemplified in the extraness of Malone’s predated FeardotCom freakshow. It’s a shame, too, because House on Haunted Hill will live on in glorious infamy for its over-the-top theatrics alone.

The Approach

The premise of both 1959’s and 1999’s House on Haunted Hill starts with a hostess’ elaborate party, her husband’s issued challenge with a cash prize, and a supposedly supernaturally cursed estate. The game is afoot despite different players in each respective title—to a degree. Frederick (Vincent Price) and Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) banter as callous “lovers” who not so jokingly detail their desires to murder one another, just like how Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) and Evelyn (Famke Janssen) project their disgust for each other with even more scandalous vitriol. Add the seeds of mistrust, miniature casket favor boxes with handguns, plus a planted guest who dares aid the damsel in distress (Annabelle or Evelyn), and the trajectories of each narrative are equally indebted to original writer ​​Robb White’s story—one just gets vastly more violent, blood-soaked, and spiritual.

Geoffrey Rush does his best Vincent Price meets a heartless entrepreneur as Steven Price, an amusement park mogul. His dearest trophy wife demands a birthday soirée at the abandoned Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, the site of a mad scientist’s surgical experimentations and merciless massacres (Jeffrey Combs plays Dr. Vannacutt). Steven decides to organize a competition for his ruinous enjoyment, inviting five chosen individuals with the offer of $1 million to whoever spends the night in the condemned facility—except it’s not Steven’s guests who arrive. Baseball star Eddie Banks (Taye Diggs), Dr. Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), celebrity Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), liar Sara (Ali Larter), and property owner Watson Prichett (Chris Kattan) all find themselves locked inside with the Prices as lockdown protocol slams iron covers over every exit. Steven runs the show with his crony technician no longer, as the stakes present themselves in ghoulish fashion.

Where William Castle and William Malone assert their unique signatures is in the summoning of horror elements. Much like Castle’s 13 Ghosts, his House on Haunted Hill is more murder mystery than a conjurer of spectral evils. Where 1959’s parlor tricks turn out to be nothing but betrayal and skeleton puppets, writer Dick Beebe scripts 1999’s invitation-only torment with a seething, pulsating monster house—complete with a rotten core. When Steven and Evelyn reach what would be a thematic mirror to Castle’s acidic ending, Malone pushes onward as a hovering ink-blot-design cloud of souls becomes this malevolent pursuer that confirms an ultimate evil unmistakably haunts Vannacutt’s forsaken hill. What a difference a few decades makes.

Does It Work?

Oh, 1999’s House on Haunted Hill is worth all the goosebumps and goriness from the very first architectural wide-angle shot of Vannacutt’s cliffside prison in disguise. The marbly, alabaster exterior does mirror the almost castle-like design that Vincent Price introduced in 1959, except William Malone does not welcome his audience with a funeral procession transportation fleet (that comes later). First, viewers glimpse the fateful event where Vannacutt’s patients overrun his staff complete with nudity, stabbed pencils through guard necks, and vengeful tides turned on operating tables. The assertion that this ain’t your grandpappy’s House on Haunted Hill hits with the nu-metal reassurance of Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” cover (too bad he’s a trash bag), and that revitalization is precisely the mythology that spikes an essential refurbishment.

Credit Geoffrey Rush’s performance as Vincent Price adjacent because there’s no out-doing one of the premier masters of ceremonies in all of the horror universe. (Vincent) Price’s admissions of wanting to slay his wife if it were that simple and macabrely jovial hospitality are sublime, so Rush becomes the slithery, greasy version whose loathsome wit would make Ricky Gervais blush—always an homage to Price in reptilian presence, groomed mustache, or character name. Rush sets the tone and it’s deafening in terms of chewing scenery, which somehow normalizes supporting performances that, in any other production, would be considered exhaustively too much. Here? Everyone’s just trying to match pace with Rush’s attraction enthusiast, whose eyes widen at the mere mention of sadism or debauchery.

The most considerable differentiation is its neon question mark—can a house with literal jawlines (love that mouth shot) morph into a different brand of scary? William Castle favors the wrath of man; Malone test-drives his FeardotCom visuals as blurry-shaky figures loom in our out of an outdated videocamera’s display, or quick edits splice through countless devilish images like a maniac’s montage. I’m not positive if kids today would label such quintessentially 2000s camera tricks as horrifically horrifying? Still, I’m more here for the carnivalesque committal to what could easily play as a hospital-themed Halloween Horror Nights maze. House on Haunted Hill ‘99 abandons the more luxurious mansion feel of its winery predecessor for stained glass explosion traps, dank electroshock therapy rooms that stink of death, and a dungeon labyrinth stained with victims’ trailing guts. It’s a sideways-smiling style that Rob Zombie keeps alive in House of 1000 Corpses, so elaborately grotesque and yet imbued with tremendous glimpses of where horror manifests out of cracked stone, industrial vats, and tuxedoed Jeffrey Combs bouncing a clown-nose-red ball (that sensory deprivation chamber breakdown rules).

The Result

I’ll return to a discussion point I valued in my Thir13en Ghosts entryHouse on Haunted Hill ‘99 is what happens when you empty your pockets for a bonkers concept. Despite knowing what inevitable fate awaits, watching William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill makes me want to punch my ticket to Steven Price’s doomed charade and just live there forever. Every detail is cobwebbed beyond recognition and amplified with Spirit Halloween chicness like a casket that, when opened, billows dry ice smoke to replicate the effect that tinier coffins holding weapons are floating because spare no Hammeresque expense. When panic mode engages, there’s a genuine moment of strange giddiness because, yeah, these poor bastards are screwed. That sensation of lip-smacking hopelessness is missing from William Castle’s finger-pointing arguments. Is there anything better than reanimated Jeffrey Combs doing his robot walk in the security camera feed because why in the hell not?

Let’s not discredit a marvelously 90s cast roster including Blockbuster Entertainment Awards winner Taye Diggs for “Favorite Supporting Actor: Horror,” well deserved. Famke Janssen devours her role as the money-hungry thorn in Steven’s side, as she hisses standoffish hatred and relishes her partner’s misery in flowing gowns. Ali Larter begins her horror namesake quest before even Final Destination. Chris Kattan bobbles around drunkenly, rambling about the demon house under his ownership as a sad, pathetic ball of paranoia. Bless Peter Gallagher for embracing his dark streak—I guess that’s what happens when you trim his eyebrows—and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras for being the needed fame-chaser stereotype who first disappears. Acting coaches might not teach these performative techniques in classes, but kudos to everyone mentioned who understands the movie they’re in and delivers 110% campiness.

Listen, I’m not going to defend the eventual entity that formulates from deep within Vannacutt’s walled-off secret chambers. The writhing mist of captured souls represents those deceased that Castle merely teases through narrative monologues—for better and worse. A special effects team including Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero ensure that Donald’s beheaded corpse and further physical mutilation all look gangbusters. Digital animation sticks out like a sore severed thumb and can’t even compare to films that came a year or two afterward. If anything, that’s a testament to the rollicking, rowdy spookhouse affair Malone cobbles together despite lacking animation polishes. Even with a Rorschach test final boss that looks like N64 graphics, I’ll still demand House on Haunted Hill ‘99 is watched whenever the mood strikes. It’s a bombastic gothic masterpiece that is as decadently indulgent as it is enjoyably enveloping from rollercoaster screams to lightning bolt lighting accents to Chris Kattan’s saving hoist.

The Lesson

Petition Dark Castle Entertainment to create more high-concept horror remakes that cost an absurd $30-$40 million? In no way do I venture to claim William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill is a perfect cinematic concoction—it’s on my forever list of comfort horror watches. Although, I’d be remiss to neglect drawing connections everywhere from American Horror Story: Asylum to future Dark Castle Entertainment films and beyond. As an outro to horror’s 90s canon and an introduction elsewhere, House on Haunted Hill predicted a movement despite being more committed than cheaper byproducts to come. As a standalone event film, it’s infectiously fun and atmospherically gifted as a dying breed of sorts.

What did we learn?

  • Dark Castle Entertainment dominated the horror remake game before the actual explosion.
  • Geoffrey Rush is a pretty solid stand-in for Vincent Price, but there is no genuine replacement.
  • It’s all about that flourish of originality—so much of both House on Haunted Hill films are connected, except one swerve that changes everything in a big way.
  • They just don’t make ‘em as they used to, not to say things have gotten worse—I just miss my House on Haunted Hills and Thir13en Ghosts in between all the outstanding indies and tighter budget showstoppers.

Truthfully, I’d love to show House on Haunted Hill ‘99 and Thir13en Ghosts ‘01 to someone who’s been raised on post-2010s horror just to study their reaction. Am I making a bigger deal out of the extravagance that spent more on a single film than some modern studios might even total through a trilogy’s run? What filmmakers and producers can deliver in terms of craftsmanship on restrained budgets is remarkable. Look at Benson and Moorhead or other indie mavericks (turned successful studio directors)—but even mainstream titles such as The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It ($39 million) don’t carry the same energetic effortlessness Dark Castle Entertainment nails in House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts.

If anyone fits my parameters above, hit me up and we’ll run an experiment one night?

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