"The House on Haunted Hill" is the latest offering from director William Malone, who had the dubious distinction of writing the unnecessary "Universal Solider: The Return". In a year that has been marked by a number of standout efforts in the horror genre, namely "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project", there have also been a number of disappointments, such as "The Haunting" and "Stigmata". Unfortunately, "The House on Haunted Hill" is yet another movie to be added to the growing list of horror disappointments. Though this remake of the 1958 William Castle film does offer a few surprising moments and some dazzling pyrotechnics, the overall impression that this movie leaves is underwhelming.
On a dark and stormy night, amusement park tycoon Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush of "Mystery Men") hosts a special birthday celebration in honor of his conniving wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen of "The Faculty") on the site of a former mental institution. However, instead of inviting friends and family, Steven has gathered four strangers who seemingly have nothing in common. There's Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs of "Go"), a former pro-athlete; Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher, seen most recently in "American Beauty"), an accomplished physician; Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson of "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), a has-been game show hostess; and Jennifer Jenzen (Ali Larter of "Drive Me Crazy"), a female executive with something to hide. Also on hand for the festivities is property owner Watson Pritchett ("Saturday Night Live" regular Chris Kattan), who is anxious to get paid and get out.
As the party gets underway, Steven makes a startling announcement-- he is prepared to pay each person a grand sum of $1 million if they can 'survive' the night. But what no one realizes is that Steven has rigged a number of tricks and traps throughout the house designed to scare the daylights out of his guests. However, the house quickly begins to take on a life of its own, as a number of mysterious occurrences beyond Steven's control plague the partygoers, starting with the house hermetically sealing itself up, trapping everyone inside. One by one, the seven men and women begin to fall victim to an evil force permeating the house, as if the house itself were alive...
At its best, "The House on Haunted Hill" offers a few cheap thrills and plot twists that make for a somewhat entertaining experience. The movie's production design and special effects sequences create an effectively nightmarish atmosphere rife with disturbing and impressionistic images. A certain level of tension and suspense is also created by a number of plot elements that rely more on the darker side of human nature (such as paranoia, duplicity, and greed), instead of ghosts and goblins.
At the same time, it is difficult to actually become caught up in the supernatural goings-on with the flat and uninteresting characters that populate the movie. The audience is provided few clues on who these six people are, and given few reasons why they should care about what happens to them. Like any 'good' "Friday the 13th" movie, they are only warm bodies to be killed in the most colorful means possible. In "The Haunting", audiences at least had Lili Taylor's well-developed and sympathetic character to root for. In this movie, you might as well be rooting for the house.
Overall, "The House on Haunted Hill" is a disappointing effort that focuses too much on the special effects and not enough on the characters. Requiring little emotional investment on the part of the viewer, this is yet another one of those horror movies that is quickly forgotten as soon as the lights come back up.