House on Haunted Hill (1999)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
A blood-soaked rethink of William Castle's amusing 1958 spook-gimmick cheapie, this cheeky ball of Cheez Whiz is more fun than last week's yawn-a-thon "The Haunting," which was dull even with all the effects money could buy. In the less pretentious "House on Haunted Hill," the house in question is a former psychiatric hospital where mad surgeon Dr. Vannacutt (B-movie vet Jeffrey Combs, who completely disappears in the proceedings) performed ugly bodily experiments and all the patients died in a mysterious fire in 1931.
The feint of a story follows a deliciously hammy Geoffrey Rush as Stephen H. Price (wink wink to Vincent Price), an obnoxious, pencil-mustached amusement park mogul comprising the guest list for his malicious wife's birthday party of five strangers. The house is decked out with scream-inducing pranks by the rascally Price himself, but soon enough it's really, truly haunted. Each of them is bribed with a million dollars if and only they survive the night!
From the "Evil Dead"-esque, spookily designed opening credits, to a plasma-pouring pencil stabbing, and then a fake roller-coaster freak accident, this diverting junk never takes itself overtly seriously, providing prankish shocks and gross-out giggles from the messy gore and loud CG effects. A particularly creepy moment where a woman sees ghostly nurses and doctors only through a video camera will give you more creeps than anything in "The Haunting." Heavily produced by Joel Silver's Dark Castle production company and William Malone directs with style, but the last seconds of the finale are a letdown, doing its surviving characters no favors or tying up any of the loose ends for us watching. The familiar cast is disposable ghost fodder (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher), however, a straight-faced Chris Kattan is funny as the former owner's grandson, and Rush and a venomous Famke Janssen as Mrs. Price are having a ball.