Last summer’s disgraceful gothic turkey The Haunting started to bore you the moment you got a glimpse of the house: a remote mansion! With multiple chambers! Stuffed with ticky-tacky Victorian decor! (Only Martha Stewart could have found it a nightmare.) The possessed edifice in House on Haunted Hill is another story entirely. A former insane asylum in which a mad surgeon once performed hideous medical experiments, it’s an elongated fascist-monolithic oddity that slopes all the way down the cliff on which it’s perched.
Inside, five strangers have been engaged to spend the night (anyone who survives will walk away with $1 million), and you never quite know what they’re going to stumble upon next. It could be one of the guests strapped down onto a shock-treatment table, or a video camera that reveals the room’s ghostly horrors, or, in one of my favorite scenes, the doofy technician we think is pulling the strings swiveling around to reveal that his face has been chomped away, leaving a giant bloody cavity.
The characters in House on Haunted Hill are throwaways, but Geoffrey Rush, updating Vincent Price’s pencil-mustached host from the original 1958 William Castle cheapie, does a wicked impersonation of James Woods. Rush plays a creator of amusement parks that feature rides with built-in fake accidents (a terrific idea!), and that spirit of prankish calamity animates the movie. The camera rushes through a maze of operating theaters and winding dark hallways, and the soundtrack is a symphony of F/X spookery. A fun house doesn’t require much logic, but it does need to toss you from one surprise terror to the next. House on Haunted Hill is trash, but always just a little creepier than you expect. B- – OG
House on Haunted Hill