"House on Haunted Hill"
Directed by William Malone
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher
Warner Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, trailers, production notes
"House on Haunted Hill," a remake of the 1958 William Castle horror-novelty classic, seems reasonably promising as it starts out. If anything, you might be curious to see what mischief Geoffrey Rush, as a sleazy amusement park impresario, is going to get up to in that greasily dashing Vincent Price mustache. (Price played the lead in Castle's original.)
But despite the potentially dishy casting of Rush and Famke Janssen as a warring couple on the verge of killing each other, "House on Haunted Hill" is just a messy string of mostly not-scary gags. Rush invites a handful of people to Janssen's birthday party, held in a former insane asylum that's been empty since a 1931 massacre, offering a prize of $1 million to anyone who survives the night. As the guests (who include Peter Gallagher and Taye Diggs) wander about the building familiarizing themselves with its appointments, they encounter any number of operating tables, gurneys, stainless-steel implements and a special chamber designed to "cure" mental patients by bombarding them with images and weird noises. (Now's your time to note what Chekhov said about that gun in the first act.)
All sorts of bad stuff happens, including dismemberment, electroshock torture and death from being inhaled by a giant, shadowy critter, but the effects, while often slightly grisly, aren't cheesy enough to be fun or realistic enough to be scary. They're just plain dorky.
You might understand why when you watch some of the extras. Moviegoers familiar with the spookily innocent animation of the brothers Quay will recognize the Quays' influence in the movie's opening credits. (Be forewarned, though, that if "House on Haunted Hill" contains any poetry at all, even the crackpot kind, it all happens during those opening credits.) In his commentary William Malone explains that the Quays' work inspired the credits, so you have to give him credit for acknowledging his sources.
From there, though, Malone doesn't say much else to redeem his project. His commentary, and the information contained in the bonus featurettes, are standard fare about how he and his crew were hoping to create this or that specific effect. But if there are any serious film students out there who actually view DVD extras to glean insight into the art of filmmaking, the deleted scenes here offer a valuable lesson in what sorts of things not to cut. There are three scenes that didn't make it into the final film, featuring the world's chicest and funniest tough cookie, Debi Mazar, as a toilet-mouthed studio exec, a shark teetering around in Manolo Blahniks. Malone said the scenes just didn't fit -- and maybe he's right. But they would have been the funniest and most entertaining bits in the movie. In the words of Joe Bologna's Sid Caesar-like character in "My Favorite Year," you never cut "funny." To that I might add, you never cut Debi Mazar.