[Screen It]

(1999) (Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen) (R)

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Horror: Hoping to receive one million dollars each if they manage to succeed, several strangers attempt to spend the night with a quarreling husband and wife in a long-closed, but reportedly haunted psychiatric institute.
Steven Price (GEOFFREY RUSH) is an amusement park mogul who delights in scaring the dickens out of those who choose to ride his new attractions. His wife, Evelyn (FAMKE JANSSEN), seems to have had enough of him, but nonetheless wants him to throw her a birthday party at the long-closed Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the criminally insane.

Empty after a deadly patient rebellion in the 30s save for a family that's taken care of the place, Evelyn thinks it will be a fun place for a party. Price agrees, but destroys her guest list, substituting his own instead. Little does he know, however, that his list is mysteriously deleted and replaced by a quartet of strangers.

Among them is Eddie Baker (TAYE DIGGS), a former pro baseball player, Sara Wolfe (ALI LARTER) a woman who masquerades as her former boss, Dr. Donald Blackburn (PETER GALLAGHER), and Melissa Marr (BRIDGETTE WILSON), a woman willing to do anything to make it on TV.

Arriving at night and greeted at the Institute by Watson Pritchett (CHRIS KATTAN), its latest caretaker, the group heads inside where they meet Steven and Evelyn who both believe the other altered the guest list. To make the evening more fun, Steven announces not only that the building is reportedly haunted -- a fact that Pritchett acknowledges from firsthand experience -- but that he'll pay anyone who can spend the entire night there -- without dying or running away in fright -- one million dollars each. Should someone leave or die, their money would then be split among the "survivors."

The running away aspect is soon resolved, however, as the building's massive but archaic security system closes off any and all exits, doors and windows, effectively sealing everyone inside. From that point on and as the night progresses, the unwillingly assembled group attempts to get out while trying to figure out whether the eerie and seemingly lethal occurrences within the house are just Price's trickery or is a result of the building being haunted.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Growing up only about a mile away from the Virginia State Fair, one of my favorite, but nerve-wracking experiences every September was hitting the midway and riding the "haunted house" rides. You know, those old-fashioned ones featuring "scary" images on the outside and a flat zigzag track through a darkened room with dangling items, fixed figures and/or people who would run into or jump out at you. As a kid, the effect was quite frightening.

Of course, such attractions lost their zest upon growing up, so the walk-through, Halloween-timed haunted house attractions -- that were staged inside actual homes -- took their place. Featuring more of a "you are there" experience and more human "ghouls," such "rides" were often quite chilling, but in an exhilarating way. The best I ever heard about, but never was "fortunate" enough to experience, however, was such a local house that contained trap doors that would send you on a ride to the basement where you'd have to make your way out, all alone.

While the plot of this week's release of "House on Haunted Hill" doesn't actually take place inside your standard old haunted house -- instead it's set in a desolate and long-closed psychiatric ward -- it still plays off the typical "something goes bump in the night" activities that can still manage to be spooky if handled properly.

Although the original film from which this is based -- William Castle's 1958 "campfest" of the same name that starred Vincent Price -- wasn't particularly scary, this film manages to elicit the goose bumps more than once. Even so, it lacks the psychological depth and terror of "The Sixth Sense" and the pure visceral impact of the nighttime scare scenes of "The Blair Witch Project." It is, however, far superior to this past summer's other haunted house and somewhat similarly plotted flick, "The Haunting."

That is, at least for the first half. That's when the filmmakers -- director William Malone (writer of "Universal Soldier: The Return" and writer/director of two barely known films, "Creature" and "Scared to Death") and screenwriter Dick Beebe (credited in the press kit as "involved in the writing" of "U.S. Marshals" and "The Net") let our imaginations do most of the work.

We know that the former mental institute is probably haunted -- due to a prologue that opens the film -- and by having the characters slowly make their way through the "house" we giddily anticipate what might jump out at them at any moment. Encountering some odd apparitions and other creepy events only adds to the effect.

Yet, the film never really progresses from there. Much like the walk through a haunted house attraction, the characters within it never experience any noticeable depth or growth and the plot doesn't deviate much from "they're going to be picked off one by one" notion that every slasher film since "Halloween" has employed.

It also lets what could have been a far more "fun" element -- of the characters and the audience not knowing what's real and what's not -- slip through its fingers. Castle, the original film's director and probably last notable showman, had a knack for goosing the moviegoer with staged gimmicks. His version of this story included a process known as "emergo" where skeletons would literally zip across the heads of audiences during key scenes and he also wired theater seats in "The Tingler" to add a little more jump to its "jump from your seat" moments.

The lead character here -- possibly named after Vincent Price who played the same role in the original -- is known for his enjoyment of scaring the dickens out of people. Thus, having him host a party at a decrepit old institute, not to mention offering each "contestant" a million dollars a piece if they can survive the night, sounds like a devilishly fun time for the audience.

However, unlike films such as David Fincher's "The Game," that whole element of what's real and what's not simply isn't as effective. Although there are a few instances of "dead" people coming back to life, after the first one, it's not that difficult to predict the others. To make matters worse, without any sort of subsequent plot development (especially concerning the money motivating the characters' actions), the film eventually loses its thrill. And when it then turns into the big special effects extravaganza for the conclusion, what little bit of imaginative filmmaking completely evaporates into a hokey ending that partially ruins everything that preceded it.

While the fodder elements -- excuse me, the characters -- are more developed and inhabited by a better- known group of performers than your typical teen horror flick, their lack of any true depth also hurts the proceedings. Since we don't really care about any of them, we worry more about how we'll react to someone jumping out rather than about their individual or collective well-being as they make their tentative trip down some darkened hallway.

That said, about the only thing the performers add is some name value to the film. Charismatic actors/actresses such as Geoffrey Rush ("Mystery Men," "Shakespeare in Love"), Famke Janssen ("Goldeneye," "Rounder") and Taye Diggs ("The Best Man," "Go") can't and aren't allowed to do much with their characters beyond what traditionally occurs in other films falling into this genre.

Others, including Ali Larter ("Varsity Blues," "Drive Me Crazy"), Bridgette Wilson ("Love Stinks," "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), Peter Gallagher ("To Gillian on her 37th Birthday," "While You were Sleeping") and Chris Kattan ("A Night at the Roxbury," TV's "Saturday Night Live") similarly inhabit shallowly developed beings and easily could have been replaced and/or interchanged with each other with little ill effect.

Although the film won't go down in the annals of the horror genre as being one of the best, at least one can say it's certainly far from the worst. Featuring a decent amount of creepy moments, some spooky visuals and the cinematic equivalent of a moderately nerve-racking trip through a staged haunted house, the film should please moviegoers who enjoy being scared. Had more attention been paid to the characters, plot and less on the concluding special effects, however, it would have been a far better film. Due to the former observation, "House on Haunted Hill" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 29, 1999 / Posted October 30, 1999

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