People always want to dump on a film because, these days, most films that come out are remakes in one form or another. I'm guilty of it myself and it really is a shame that there isn't much left of originality anymore. It's a tough business trying to come up with something that somebody else hasn't already thought of. So I suppose remaking or reimagining previous work is ok. I'm a big fan of the theory that films that were not well made the first time should get a shot at being remade before any of the classics are tampered with. However, some films fall down the middle between being classic films and bad films. The original House On Haunted Hill is just such a film. By today's standards, it is a pretty tame affair. Even in it's time, the films that were not-so standards from that bygone era were doing much less conventional things and trying new ideas and ways of storytelling. Filmmakers Jacques Tourneur, Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava and Dario Argento were coming out of this era and into a new breed of filmmaking that much more influential in most respects. But the question is always asked "Does a film's quality (it's special effects, acting, editing, lighting, etc) make it qualify as a bad film?" My answer is no. It all relies on the opinion of the viewer. Opinions are not universal and everyone can have their own. That's what the wonderful thing is about seeing films is.
So William Castle's original House On Haunted Hill may not be, in my opion, a genre classic, nor is it a horrible film. It falls somewhere in between. It scared me as a child and delights me now as an adult. Just about everything about it is dated and difficult to relate to on an esoteric level I suppose, but it's too damned charming and entertaining to dismiss entirely. I hold it in high regard as one of my favorite horror films, even if it isn't a true classic by definition, or if its creator was much more concerned with atmosphere. Not just in his films but with the audiences that saw it. Anyone familiar with William Castle or has seen the film Matinee will know what lengths the man went to to entertain his audience. Anyways, with all this in mind (I didn't mean to write a book, I promise), I give you my take on the remake of House On Haunted Hill.
To update a cult favorite, I believe firmly you have to stick with the original formula to some degree. A few strangers are invited to spend the night in a haunted house, and if they survive the night, they each receive one million dollars (only ten thousand dollars in the original). Pretty cooky concept, wouldn't you say? But the idea reaches out to the audience on a very basic level. If you were handed such a proposal, would you do it? Of course you would. You would be a fool not to because that is a lot of money and if all you have to do is spend the night in a creepy old house...well, I know I'd do it. So the movie works for an audience on that level. Storywise, little has changed from the original until the third act, which I won't spoil.
When it comes to character, you have to spread the butter kinda thick. Give the audiences people they can relate to, people they feel uneasy about and people that make them laugh. This film has all of that. There's been some criticism that everyone in the film is thinly drawn because not a lot of information is given about them, only the basics, ala most horror films. It's my belief that their performances carry themselves and you don't need heavy exposition or background information. It's all there in who they are as characters without deep explanation, and that's pretty important.
As far as atmosphere, this film oozes it. You're given a brief but disturbing look at what has taken place in this house before you spend the night in it and it keeps you looking around the corners. The set design is absolutely superb. Dark and creepy, right down to the fireplace in the makeshift parlor. The lighting is a little too bright at times (my feeling is shadow is creepier than actually seeing everything) but that doesn't detract much from the atmosphere. I always felt that the basement of the house should have been underlit, like in the original. Other than that, it all works well.
When it comes to direction and editing, I believe the latter is just a bit lacking. I think William Malone gives wonderful strong direction to his actors and they all give solid performances, particularly Geoffrey Rush and Chris Kattan, but I believe his editing instincts may need a bit of polish. I've seen some of the footage that was not in the final cut and I believe some of it belongs in the final edit. Perhaps an extended version of the movie will appear someday and some of this footage can see daylight.
I shouldn't comment on this because I'm talking about the film, but I always loved the original teaser trailer for this movie. I still think it's one of the best horror trailers I've ever seen. It sets up the atmosphere and tone of film perfectly.
I know I should talk about a lot of the plot specifics, but I'd feel like I'd spoil it for those who haven't seen it because even though it was a major release, it's still underlooked 10 years later. So if you're in the mood for a very creepy horror film with some real atmosphere, you owe it to yourself to see this one. It may not be a "classic" either, but it's damned enjoyable and one of the best horror films in recent years, not to mention one of the finest remakes out there.