"House on Haunted Hill"

Where evil has a modem and looks like black calamari.

By Sarah Beach

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I would rather feed Jesse Helms a rancid peanut butter sandwich, and then have him slowly lick my face off, than sit through "House on Haunted Hill" again.

"House on Haunted Hill," a remake of a 1958 William Castle movie, stars Geoffrey Rush and some other people, all of whom must have asked the Godfather for a favor years ago and had to pay him back by being in this film. I can't forgive Rush. What the hell was he thinking? He was terrific as the piano-playing weirdo in "Shine." As a career choice, this was a pantload of stupidity.

It would be pointless to critique the plot, which revolves around an eccentric millionaire who offers six strangers $1 million each if they can make it through the night in a scary house that used to be an insane asylum. Instead, here are some things I learned from "House on Haunted Hill." For the full effect, print this out, put it through a shredder and read the resulting bits of paper while repeatedly trying to close a door on your head.

  • If you are a sociopathic serial-killing psychiatrist and you want to torture your inmates by cutting them open without anaesthetic, you will have no trouble finding a bunch of attractive, equally psychotic scrub nurses to hand you a rusty scalpel and film the proceedings.

  • When you're writing a screenplay and can't think of any sarcastic remarks for people to make, just have them clap slowly while saying "bravo" in a bored-sounding voice. Have them do this again and again and again, until the movie resembles the sarcastic clapping family sketch on "Saturday Night Live."

  • If you are hired to design an insane asylum, make it look like a big hood ornament, and put it right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Light it poorly. Fix it so that when people want to get from the basement to the attic they only have to use one staircase, with about 10 shallow stairs.

  • If you're ever stuck in a haunted insane asylum that looks like a big hood ornament on a cliff, and the lights are faltering, find a random wiring junction out of thousands in the walls of the basement, stick your hand in it and wiggle it around briefly. The lights will keep faltering just like they were, but everyone around you will somehow think you've rewired the building.

  • Evil looks a lot like black calamari. You can keep it captive by walling it up in a basement room, but it can still mess with people's computers. The conclusion: Evil has a modem and tentacles, and it knows your password.

  • If you want to drive someone crazy, show them a movie of a guy in a bowler hat bouncing a red ball. Brr! It freaks me out even to think of it! Also, include some underwater people, and make blood come out of their mouths. Do this over and over and over and over again, until you've completely numbed the audience to the effect.

    On a serious note: What ever happened to pacing in horror movies? The first "Alien" movie was scary as hell because it started off quietly, establishing a sense of "normal" life on a big spaceship. The characters were subtly developed and interesting. The tension built slowly. "The Shining" is another example of good pacing. People slowly going crazy are scary, and if they're family members you love and trust, it's much scarier.

    More importantly, in "Alien," you never saw the entire monster. Things that you can't see are scarier than the things you can. That's why the monster lives in the closet, and not on your bedside table right next to the Snoopy lamp. In the third "Alien," they showed every detail of the monster until it had the horrific effect of a plastic Taco Bell giveaway figurine.

    People who are crazy from the beginning of the movie aren't scary. There's nothing to suspect, nothing to be tense about except maybe when they will eventually crack, and these days most scary movies telegraph each moment of approaching horror so clearly that they lose their effect. If the movie never makes you feel anything for the characters, they're even less scary. I don't give a damn how creatively you kill them. They're as expendable to the audience as they were to the screenwriter.

    Here's an example of how "House on Haunted Hill," which was directed by William Malone, defined a character. Early on while people were arriving at the haunted asylum, they started introducing themselves. One of them was a bratty blond girl with a video camera. When it was her turn, she said, "I'm so-and-so. I am a filmmaker -- OK, I used to be a filmmaker. I lost my job, so now I'm going to break back into show business by filming something really freaky for 'World's Scariest Home Videos.'"

    Actually, I kind of wish real life were that expository. It would be great if, when meeting someone, they said things like "Hi, I'm Tina Carruthers. I am a marketing drone and my job bores the crap out of me, but I am adrift in immoral capitalism. I will pretend to like you to get your money, and then I'll go slag you to my pals."

    I wonder if Jesse Helms would prefer Skippy or Jif?

  • Sarah Beach

    Sarah Beach is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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