Who can survive the night in the House on Haunted Hill? There have been many tragic deaths within its confines. Those of us with an appetite for haunted house stories know that a house with a deadly history foreshadows future doom for those story characters that choose to roam its rooms and corridors. Why oh why do these people embark upon such a journey? For fun and games?
Someone is making a game out of this situation. An eccentric rich man is willing to pay large sums of money to anyone that spends the night in The House on Haunted Hill…and survives. He decides to host a birthday party for his wife at this house. A strange party this is, for the guests are strangers to him. These strangers are the contestants in his deadly game of survival. Why is he doing this? That is the mystery, but viewers learn early on that he is very suspicious of his wife. She has tried to murder him on past occasions. Is all this a scheme to extract some kind of twisted revenge on his wife? Will she, once again, try to murder him and do so before the night is through.
In the first release of this film, there is a skeleton that rises out of a vat of acid to prey on people. In the second release of this film there is a chamber designed to rid a mental patient of his/her schizophrenia. But the inverse is also true – it can drive a sane person insane. Get ready folks, there is a lot of weird things afoot in these two different versions of the movie The House on Haunted Hill .
Welcome readers to my second compare and contrast article concerning classic haunted house films and their respective remakes. I hope by now you have read the first article: The Haunting 1963 Vs. The Haunting 1999 – Which Film Wins? If not, click on the link and read, read read!
The films in the preceding article are based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. Though the films in this article share a name that is similar to the novel (“Hill House” vs. “Haunted Hill”), they are of different species and should not be confused with “The Haunting” movies. Let’s compare the two original films, (The House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting), in brief. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) by William Castle is by no means the definitive haunted house film. In my opinion, that description belongs to the Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Castle’s film possesses not the pristine creepiness of Wise’s film. The Haunting is for the serious student of spooky cinematography – The House on Haunted Hill is a fun popcorn film filled with gimmicky scares. I like The Haunting considerably more than The House on Haunted Hill, but truth be told, Castle’s film is entertaining, so please don’t think I am panning his film. It too is enjoyable in its own way
Look what I’m doing – this is supposed to be an article about the similarities and differences between the two House on Haunted Hill films, and here I am instead devoting much attention to the differences between The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Haunting (1963). Why am I doing this? All will be explained in the chart below:
- A = The Haunting (1963)
- a = The Haunting (1999)
- B = The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
- b = The House on Haunted Hill (1999)
The likability gap between A and a < B and b. Such a variance can best be explained by an overall categorical comparison
See, now everything is explained!
(Hypothetical Reader: “I don’t know what the fuck you are getting at! And will you please use plain English and ditch the mathematics?)
What I’m trying to say is that I prefer The Haunting of 1963 so much more than its remake. While the original House on Haunting Hill film is significantly better than its remake, The House on Haunted Hill of 1999 isn’t altogether terrible; it is better than The Haunting of 1999. I am more forgiving of the style and content changes that earmark the modernized version of The House on Haunted Hill. The reason for this pardon has to do with the laxed tone of the original film. The House on Haunted Hill/1959, though not technically “horror comedy, is silly at times. It “makes” fun, and therefore, the gesture can be reciprocated. We the viewers are allowed to “make fun” of it while enjoying the movie at the same time. By the same token, The House on Haunted Hill/1999, while seriously flawed, is also a fun film. It doesn’t take itself as seriously as The Haunting/1999. Because the original film is gimmicky by intentional design, the remake is bequeathed certain liberties in the name of fun or even absurdity. The Haunting/1963 does not call for such directional change, and yet its 1999 remake awkwardly pursues a different path to the point of identify confusion. Is it attempting a serious, gothic-style haunting or is it settling for a hammy display ghost-centered theatrics? It doesn’t know. Meanwhile, even though I enjoyed The House on Haunted Hill/1959, it cannot compete with the masterpiece that is The Haunting/1963.
Here is another chart that utilizes a grading scale to explain my preferences:
The House on Haunted Hill/ 1959 – B+
The Haunting/1963 – A
The Haunting/1999 – D
The House on Haunted Hill/1999 – C-
Let’s see if rottentomatoes.com critics/audience feels the same way.
The House on Haunted Hill/1959 – Critics score – 92% / Audience score 72%
The Haunting/1963 – Critics score – 87% / Audience score 82%
The Haunting/1999 – Critics Score: 16%/ Audience Score 28%
The House on Haunted Hill/1999 – Critics Score: 29%/Audience Score 42%
Wow, the aggregate of critics prefer the The House on Haunted Hill/1959 to The Haunting/1963. But the general trend regarding the modern films seems to agree with my preferences. So there!
Okay, let’s move along and find out what these two “House on Haunted Hill” movies are made of!
The House on Haunted Hill – 1959
To appreciate the “silly yet scary” tone of this film, one must understand something about the film’s director and creative marketer, the late great William Castle. I’ll give you a couple of “somethings.”
Castle was the master of marketing gimmicks. These gimmicks played out at the theaters where his films were shown. These manufactured stunts related to certain scenes in the film. For instance, during his film The Tingler, about a centipede-like creature that attaches itself to the human spine and causes a tingling sensation, Castle equipped certain theaters with vibrating chair device that caused viewers backs to tingle. In his movie 13 Ghosts, viewers were given special glasses to wear if they wanted to see the movie ghosts. (This movie will be featured in my next compare/contrast article).
Did he have a gimmick for The House on Haunted Hill? You bet he did! Remember at the beginning of the article when I referred to a skeleton that rises out of a vat of acid? Well, in select theaters, he arranged for a skeleton to slide across a hidden wire over the heads of seated viewers. What fun!
Think of William Castle as a prankster that pulls off cheesy yet scary pranks. We all had that relative that threw a sheet over his head and jumped out of a closet with a “boo!”. In retrospect, that’s cheesy, but the trick scared its victims and ended up being a whole lot of fun. This is what his films are like. They are also filled with mystery and creative twists. Think Scooby-Doo (but the mastermind is not always Old Man Crowley!) . The House on Haunted Hill follows this criteria. It’s mysterious, scary, and delightfully cheesy .
The rich eccentric, Frederick Loren is played by Vincent Price. As usual his performance is brilliant. Without him, my rating of this film would drop by a grade and a half. The way he goes at it with his wife Annabelle, played by Carol Ohmart . ..growwwwwwwl!!
Frederick makes sure to inform his guests that they have until midnight to change their minds about spending the night. At midnight, the servants leave and lock the doors, sealing all guests inside until dawn. For protection during the long night, he “gifts” each person a gun. The guns are “gift-wrapped” inside a tiny coffins. What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?
The most annoying character is Watson Pritchard (played by Elisha Cook Jr.) He owns the house but doesn’t reside in it. He is the one that knows about the history of this house and he is terribly frightened of it. But he is in need of money and hopes to win the ten thousand dollars that Frederick promises to each surviving guest. Throughout the movie, he plays the scaredy-cat and carries on in an irritating , squeaky voice. In addition, his pervasive facial expression of cartoon fright gets old real fast.
Guest Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) receives the brunt of the haunting. She finds a severed head in her bedroom. She sees ghosts and witch-like figures here and there, around this corner, outside this window. (The “floating” witch-like character looks like on of those carnival fun house dummies.) During her stay, she finds a love interest, one Lance Schroeder (Richard Long). He looks out for her and tries to calm her.. How sweet!
During the night, Annabelle (Fredericks wife) is found hanging over a stairwell, a noose around her neck. At first the group thinks it’s suicide, but there is a doctor among the guests. He examines the body and decides, due to the way she had been hanging, she couldn’t have done this to herself. Someone had murdered her. But who?
Initially, Frederick is the suspect. After all, the guests learned how much he despised his wife. But Frederick objects, insisting that one of them had murdered Annabelle. In the end, no one is sure what to believe and they all suspect each other. So, in this type of situation, for everyone’s safety, what is the best course of action? At the doctor’s suggestion, everyone retires to their own personal bedrooms. The one who breaks this rule, the one that might decide to take a late night stroll, is quite possibly the killer. I wonder if this film began the “we all most separate” trope that is pervasive in horror films. Maybe not, but the separation plan as specifically laid out in the dialog is patently absurd. Oh well, on we go with the rest of the movie.
Now, here comes a Twist! Let’s do it! (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!)
The body of Annabelle lies on a bed. The doctor has left his room. He approaches Annabelle. Surprise! She is not dead. She and the doc are lovers and have been planning something nefarious. See, they have been haunting the house, purposely scaring the shit out of poor Nora, hoping that in her frightened state, she would shoot Frederick, thinking he is the murderous, evil facilitator of the house haunting. They arrange for Nora to encounter him down in the cellar by the vat of acid in a situation where she would mistakenly think he was there to kill her. The plan works! She shoots him! He falls over and she runs away.
The doctor then descends to the cellar to get rid of the body of Frederick. He pulls the corpse toward the vat of acid, intending to throw him inside, where the acid would eat away at his skin and guts, reducing him to bones. The screen goes dark, there is the sounds of a scuffle.
Hey readers, how about we do another Twist!
Annabelle makes her way down to the basement. The skeleton of Frederick rises out of the vat of acid and chases her. His evil voice accompanies the chase. The skeleton leads her to the edge of the vat. Its boney arm reaches out to her. She fall in!
And yet another twist! (No Chubby Checker this time. Sorry!)
The real Frederick comes out of the shadows. He had been operating the skeleton with wires, making it move. He was never dead either. The gun he had given Nora was filled with blanks. When the Doctor was moving “his body” and the screen went dark, Frederick had stopped playing dead and fought the doctor and pushed him into the acid vat.
In the end, he gets away with killing his wife and her lover. A nice happy ending! Yay!!!!!!
Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!
The House on Haunted Hill – 1999
Forty years after the original movie, society is blessed with – this. The “this” is that which I am about to describe. Oh, I should knock off the mockery, for as I have already stated, this remake isn’t all “that bad”. It’s just bad, without the “that”.
In the original film, the backstory concerning the house is given, but not in great detail. Seven people had died in the house before the events in the film. All of them had lost their heads. The whys and wherefores concerning these head losses are not given. Nor do we know if the backstory is even true. It might just be the wild imaginings of that annoying guy. In the modern version, the backstory is central to haunting. In this version of the story, the house on haunted hill was once an insane asylum. The doctor who ran this institution was not a very nice guy. (Not even a little nice? No!) What made him “not nice?” Well for one thing, he operated on patients without using anesthesia. That’s not very nice. The film shows him with a patient on the operating table, who is twitching in pain as the “not nice” doc rips out some of his organs. There is a nurse or two there as well, perhaps another doctor, and they are all cruelly taking part in this operation. This kind of thing is common parlance here at this asylum – the patients are the doctor’s guinea pigs.
One day, the patients rise up. They kill the doctor and his evil staff. While the carnage ensues, the place goes on automatic lockdown. Steel barriers seal off all the doors and windows. It’s an automatic thing, controlled by machinery. The insane people set the place on fire. But they can’t get out! So, they all die; doctors, staff and patients. Hmmm, I wonder is such a tragedy will cause some kind of haunting later in the film, when once again, a rich eccentric will invite complete strangers to this “house on the hill” for his wife’s birthday party? The answer – yes!
While the original film is marked with gimmicks and sideshow scares, this film is filled with – gore, gore, gore! I have already mentioned the operation scene. But there is more in store than what was shown as the backstory. There are a lot of flashing lights, buzzing sounds, and mechanical zaps! Parts of the movie remind me of any opening sequence for American Horror Story, whichever season.
The rich eccentric (played by Geoffrey Rush) goes by the name Stephen Price. I like how is character is named after the great Vincent. Throughout the movie, they simply refer to him as “Price.” They even make him look like Vincent Price a bit with a similar hairstyle and thin mustache. Price is an amusement park mogul, and there is a cool scene at the beginning of the film involving a roller coaster. Anyway, the set up is the same – Price is at odds with his wife Evelyn (played by Famke Janssen). They would like to kill each other, if only there was a way!
The screen chemistry between Rush and Janssen, I must say, is pretty good. Maybe not quite up to par with Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart team, but still they put on a good show. Once again, a birthday party is planned for the wife at a haunted house. Guests will be paid a million dollars if they can last the night. In the earlier film, the reward was ten thousand dollars, but that kind of money doesn’t go very far in 1999. Oh already, there is a twist! The computer erases the guest list and creates an alternative list. This doesn’t happen in the first film. What is going on? (Hint: Ghosts are playing around. Oooooooo!)
Four guests arrive at the house, lead by a fifth person – Watson Pritchett (That’s almost the same name as the charter he is playing from the first film, which is Watson Pritchard, according to Wikipedia). He is the one granting everyone access to the house. He owns it but refuses to live there. He doesn’t even want to be here tonight. He knows about its past and knows that it is haunted in a very deadly way. This Watson is less annoying than the one in the original film. This one is kind of funny in an entertaining kind of way. The other guests include a doctor dude, a pilot dude, a journalist dude-et, and a secretary dude-et. Of course Price and Evelyn are there and….let the games begin!
Watson wants to get the hell out of there. He doesn’t plan on spending the night. But oh no, the automatic lockdown kicks in. Doors and windows are sealed. Who did this? Is it Price? Evelyn? Or…the ghosts? (Hint: it’s the ghosts). So the cast of characters need to figure out how to get to the controls that operate the barricade and deactivate it. On the way toward the machinery, they pass a lot of torture devices.
The same basic plot of the original film plays out here in pretty much the same way. All guests are given guns. Evelyn if found dead, not by hanging, but someone had the gall to strap her to an electroshock machine. Price is blamed and they lock him in the chamber that “Makes an insane person sane, and a sane person crazy”. Ahh, I don’t feel like describing the chamber, so just see the film to see what that’s all about. But- eureka! Evelyn isn’t dead. The doctor guest is in cahoots with her. They want Price dead. Eventually Price is freed from the chamber and is shot dead. Oh no he isn’t! He is wearing a bulletproof vest. He and his wife then physically fight each other, but both ended up being destroyed by – the ghosts.
Alas, there is no skeleton rising from a vat of acid in this version of the story. The modern movie replaces those sideshow special effects with, once again, the wonders of computer graphic images. Back in high school, did you ever learn about the four types of conflict within the short story? If memory serves me correctly, they are:
Man vs. Man
Man Vs. Nature
Man Vs. Himself
Man Vs. Society
(Sorry for the sexist terminology, this is how I learned to refer to this conflicts)
Well now there is a new one:
Man Vs. CGI Amorphous Blob of Spirits. (That’s what the thing at the end of the movie looked like to me anyway – one shadowy blob consisting of hundreds of spirits)
In a similar manner as The Haunting 1999, it is this CGI Monster of Spirits that is the bad guy. Why oh why are they so mad at these guests that they want them dead. Well, remember when I mentioned that the computer had swapped one guest list for another? As it turns out, the ones invited via the phantom computer operator are descendants of the staff that ran the evil insane asylum. The spirits need their revenge, don’t they? So once again, just like The Haunting 1999, the writers felt the need to tie the characters to the backstory via familial relations that were kept secret. Oh my!
There is one area, in my opinion, where both films fail. And that is – creating an establishing shot of a large, creepy haunted house. The “house” in the 1959 film looks like this:
Kind of a random array of blocks and squares if you ask me. Following suit, the 1999 film uses an establishing shot that invokes no real sense of “haunting:”
It looks more like something out of a Star Wars movie.
Be that as it may, The House of Haunted Hill 1959 is a good film, not necessarily great. The House of Haunted Hill 1999 is a tolerable film, so long as one is not offended by gore and noise. The second film has its fun moments, but it should not be on anyone’s top 50 list of great horror films. Maybe not on any top 100 list either.
Both films invoke humor, and humor is a good thing, right? I mean, we all need to laugh. The original film is comfortable with its gimmicky status and doesn’t try to be anything else. The second film, though overblown with effects and filled with unintentionally cheesy story arcs, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is a good thing too. And what a great way to end this article, on a “good” note.