Film Review: House On Haunted Hill (1999)

Release Date: October 27th, 1999 (premiere)
Directed by: William Malone
Written by: Dick Beebe, Robb White
Based on: House On Haunted Hill by Robb White, William Castle
Music by: Don Davis
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Chris Kattan, Peter Gallagher, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combs, Slavitza Jovan, Lisa Loeb, Peter Graves (cameo), Greg Nicotero (uncredited)

Dark Castle Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt. He out-butchered Bundy, made Manson look meek.” – Peter Graves

Man, it’s been a really long time since I’ve watched this but for some odd reason, it holds a special place in my dark heart. I’m not sure if it is due to when it came out and the effect of nostalgia or because I actually consider it to be better than the film it is a remake of, which almost feels sacrilegious to type because Vincent Price, that film’s star, is why I fell in love with horror to begin with.

Generally, I’m not a fan of remakes in the same way I’m not a fan of cover songs. I really feel as if these things should only exist if they can justify themselves by being better or at the very least, being an interesting new take on the source material they are borrowing from.

1999’s House On Haunted Hill is a really good example of a film that takes its inspiration from its predecessor and makes it something else without sacrificing what the original vision was. It’s not an easy task to achieve but Dark Castle really started out on a good foot with this, their first of a few classic horror remakes.

Ultimately, this takes the formula from William Castle’s classic haunted house tale and ups the ante in a way that is very ’90s. It’s more extreme, has a fair bit of good gore and it updates the concept into something contemporary for the time. It’s also more of a psychological horror film and goes places that the original one couldn’t. The scene in the hallucination chamber is well done and actually kind of terrifying, even for a horror aficionado like myself.

That being said, there are three key things that make this remake a solid one.

The first is the ensemble cast. For a horror film with slightly more than a half dozen main players, we have an assemblage of some really good talent. Everyone sort of plays a typical horror archetype but they are all really good at it. I like everyone in this, top to bottom, regardless of whether or not they’re playing the innocent and good character thrown into a literal hell or they’re playing the evil, conniving bastard with some sort of dastardly trick up their sleeve.

Frankly, as good as everyone is in their roles, Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen steal every single scene they’re in. I can’t say that they outclass and out act every other actor here but they just rise to a different level and they seriously look like they are enjoying hamming it up in this twisted movie.

The second thing that makes this film work is the atmosphere. This isn’t the house from the original film. Instead, we’re trapped with these characters in a burned out art deco styled fortress of the 1930s, which was used as an insane asylum ran by an evil and sadistic doctor that used to butcher his patients.

Beyond that, the sets are incredible and the art direction in this film was magnificent. I really dig the lighting, the visual effects, the general cinematography and just about everything visual. The practical effects are great and even if the CGI feels dated now, it works for what this is and it doesn’t take you out of the picture like some of the CGI you’d see from this era. The Lovecraftian inspired blob of spirits is actually kind of cool and it works tremendously well with the tone of the film.

The third thing that works wonders is the score. The music is a great mix of a classic horror movie soundtrack and ’90s era industrial styled instrumentals. The film even features Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams”, which adds another level of dread and atmosphere to the already effective presentation of the picture.

I’d like to give credit to the director, William Malone. He managed this project well and I have to give credit where it’s due, especially since I don’t like the other films that I’ve seen of his: Creature, FeardotCom and Parasomnia. But maybe I will give those movies a re-watch soon, as it’s been a long time.

When this came out, it was a film that critics hated but I remember most people enjoying it. It’s got a ’90s campiness to it but it’s far from comedy and I’d say that it’s aged well. It’s certainly better than what the modern standard seems to be in the horror genre.

I think that I’ll revisit Dark Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts remake soon, as it has been a long time since I’ve seen it but I had a good experience with it, back in the day. I may also finally watch the sequel to this film. I heard it’s nowhere near as good but with this fresh in my mind, I’d like to take another trip to the haunted asylum.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the other Dark Castle remakes of classic horror films, as well as other late ’90s and early ’00s ghost movies.

Film Review: Castle Freak (1995)

Also known as: Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak
Release Date: November 14th, 1995
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Written by: Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon
Based on: The Outsider by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jessica Dollarhide, Jonathan Fuller

Full Moon Entertainment, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I didn’t kill her, I fucked her, Okay?” – John Reilly

Anything that brings the Re-Animator team back together, usually ends with pretty good results. This is the one and only time that it didn’t. I loved the three Re-Animator films and From Beyond but this was pretty friggin’ awful.

Even the acting of Jeffrey Combs, who I usually love in everything, was just off the mark and a bit over the top. Barbara Crampton was fairly decent but not as good as she was in those other films. Jessica Dollarhide, who was only in this movie and had a few TV credits, was actually the high point on the acting side.

The plot, like the other films featuring this director and his cast, was taken from an H.P. Lovecraft story. The film is missing that insane otherworldly feel of the other films though. This is also missing the comedy. Essentially, what we have here is a serious attempt at creating a horror film from a crew that were maestros of really dark comedy movies. It just didn’t work on any level.

The score was exceptionally bad, which was surprising since the man behind the music, Richard Band, worked with this troupe before with fantastic results.

I’m not sure what was wrong with this movie. It was the one time that these people didn’t create magic. It is just so out of tune with their other work that it’s baffling. Maybe it has to do with Full Moon putting out the film, as they’ve made mostly schlock for decades.

Castle Freak unlike this group’s other films, is completely forgettable.

The makeup was decent though.

Rating: 4.25/10

Film Review: From Beyond (1986)

Also known as: H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond
Release Date: October 24th, 1986
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Written by: Dennis Paoli, Brian Yuzna, Stuart Gordon
Based on: From Beyond by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Ted Sorel, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon

Empire Pictures, 80 Minutes, 85 Minutes (unrated cut)

Review:

“Humans are such easy prey.” – Dr. Edward Pretorius

From Beyond might not be as well-known as Re-Animator but maybe it should be. It is made by the same creative team and even features two of the stars of Re-Animator. Plus, this is also a modern adaptation of another H.P. Lovecraft story. Stuart Gordon made his career off of adapting Lovecraft and this film, may be the most bizarre of all those stories.

To be honest, I like this slightly better than the original Re-Animator but not quite as much as Bride of Re-Animator, my favorite from the series. It is insane in the same way those other films were but this one is different. Where Re-Animator was more like a Lovecraftian version of a Frankenstein story, this is more like Lovecraft mixed with David Cronenberg’s body horror style. Think films like VideodromeThe FlyScanners or The Brood.

Jeffrey Combs is a scientist in this film too but he isn’t like Dr. Herbert West from Re-Animator. He is a good guy that got pulled into some really bad stuff and has been horribly effected by it.

Ted Sorel plays the evil doctor in this. His insane and disfigured Dr. Pretorius (named as an homage to the mad scientist from Bride of Frankenstein) is very similar to David Gale’s villainous Dr. Carl Hill from the first two Re-Animator films.

Barbara Crampton reunites with Combs, as the sexy doctor that is interested in the weird experiments in this story but also gets in way over her head. Horror icon Ken Foree gets some good moments in this film and looked like he was fully invested in his part, especially the more physical demands of this picture.

The special effects in this are friggin’ impressive and eclipse what Gordon and Brian Yuzna did in Re-Animator, a year prior. This is such a colorful film with great lighting, mostly employing a lot of high intensity reds and blues at different levels of depth in the shots. While the visual style probably disguised issues with some of the practical special effects, it actually makes them look even better, as the vivid colors just add to the otherworldly feel.

From Beyond is highly underrated and underappreciated. It is sort of lost to time. When I come across fans of the Re-Animator films, I always ask them what they think about this picture. Often times, I discover that they have never even heard of this movie.

This film is bizarre and unique and a hell of a lot of fun. It is disturbing and uncomfortable but has a charm about it. If you like Re-Animator, I don’t know why you wouldn’t like this.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Beyond Re-Animator (2003)

Release Date: April 4th, 2003
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Written by: Miguel Tejada-Flores, Jose Manuel Gomez, Brian Yuzna (uncredited)
Based on: Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Xavier Capellas
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Tommy Dean Musset, Jason Barry, Barbara Elorrieta, Elsa Pataky, Santiago Segura, Simon Andreu

Castelao Producciones, Fantastic Factory, Filmax International, Lions Gate Entertainment, 95 Minutes

Review:

“She’s not getting any fresher.” – Herbert West

I really like the Re-Animator film series but this was the weakest chapter out of the three. I’m not sure why, as taking things into a prison setting should have provided some interesting developments and new territory. I think it may have fallen short because there was so much time between the second film and this one, the third and final.

That being said, this is still pretty fun and I do like the film. Re-Animator is a horror film franchise where every movie does a good job and brings something fresh without simply being a retread. Then again, the series stopped at three films. Although, I’d really be game for a fourth even though it has been a long time since the third. But Dr. Herbert West is still out there.

I guess the biggest thing about this film that sets it below the others is that the big grand finale isn’t bigger and crazier than the previous two movies. The first film’s finale was ridiculous in the best way possible. The second film upped the ante and was as visually impressive as it was completely insane. This film still has an awesome ending full of insanity, violence, gore and a lot of dark humor but it didn’t go any further than what we’ve seen before.

I feel like the prison riot scenario could have been so grander and with a lot more re-animated corpses ripping human flesh to shreds. It was cool seeing what happens when a junkie shoots up with Dr. West’s syrum but it felt like an understatement in the way the film handled it.

At the end of the day, Jeffrey Combs is still money as Dr. Herbert West and this is still a good horror film that fits within the franchise, even if though it came out after a thirteen year break.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Bride of Re-Animator (1989)

Release Date: October, 1989 (Sitges Film Festival)
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Written by: Rick Fry, Woody Keith, Brian Yuzna
Based on: Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, David Gale, Fabiana Udenio, Kathleen Kinmont

Wild Street Pictures, 50th Street Films, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Blasphemy? Before what? God? A God repulsed by the miserable humanity He created in His own image? I will not be shackled by the failures of your God. The only blasphemy is to wallow in insignificance. I have taken refuse of your God’s failures and I have triumphed. There! There is my creation!” – Dr. Herbert West

I know I am in the extreme minority here. However, I actually prefer Bride of Re-Animator to Re-Animator. Not that I dislike the original in the slightest. This one just has an edge on it, in my opinion. But I will get into that.

This film brings back the important people. Jeffrey Combs returns as Herbert West, the mad doctor behind the grisly experiments that are responsible for the monsters in these films. Bruce Abbot returns as his reluctant partner Dan Cain and David Gale reappears as the villainous Dr. Carl Hill. In this film though, the severed head of Hill is given bat wings so that it can travel around with ease, scaring the crap out of everyone at every turn once we get to the final act of the story.

The film also adds in Fabiana Udenio, as a nice love interest for Dan. However, Dan is also obsessed over Gloria (Kathleen Kinmont), a deceased patient that becomes re-animated as the title character of the film in a similar fashion to the Bride from various Frankenstein stories and adaptations.

The reason I like this film better than the original, is that it seems to have a higher level of quality. The practical special effects have improved, the lighting, cinematography and overall camera work are also better. Plus, the characters are more established and the actors seem to be really embracing their roles and the story with much more vigor than in the first film. There is just a level of comfort and familiarity that seems to come through the lens and onto the screen.

Also, I just like this story better. Where the first film was a reinvention of the Frankenstein tale with an H.P. Lovecraft touch, this one is a reinvention of the Bride of Frankenstein. While I love Frankenstein it is the Bride of Frankenstein that I have always loved more and the same is true with these great reinventions of those stories.

Jeffrey Combs is just so at home here, as Dr. Herbert West. This is the film where he became more than just a one off character and really cemented himself as a horror icon. It was unfortunate that it took so long to get another sequel after this one, as he could have become his generation’s version of Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein. And maybe he has reached that status but I could have watched him do this for six or seven films like Cushing’s awesome run from the late 50s into the early 70s.

As good as the first Re-Animator was, I wouldn’t have bought into the concept of it as much, had it not been for this film turning it into a series, albeit a short one with just three films.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Re-Animator (1985)

Also known as: H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator
Release Date: October 18th, 1985
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Written by: Stuart Gordon, William J. Norris, Dennis Paoli
Based on: Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson

Re-Animator Productions, Empire International Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist!” – Herbert West

Re-Animator is one of those movies I have to go back and rewatch every couple of years. And every time that I do, I am always surprised by it, even though I’ve seen it multiple times.

Reason being, is that much of this movie, especially the final third is so bizarre and surreal that it still sort of shocks the senses. The last fifteen minutes or so crosses certain lines that still make you feel uncomfortable, regardless of how many times you’ve seen the picture. I don’t want to go into the details of it, because I’d prefer not to spoil this movie for those who have yet to see it.

This is a 1980s modernization of an H.P. Lovecraft story. It is somewhat of a spin on the Frankenstein tale but goes to even darker places than Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece.

The villain (or hero, depending upon your point of view), Herbert West, is a medical student that has just returned from a stint in Switzerland. He has expanded on the work of a notable doctor and has found a way to reanimate the brains of the deceased and thus, their bodies or what’s left of them. It sort of marries the Frankenstein concept and the zombie genre.

The special effects in this film are pretty well done for the most part but the budgetary limitations are very apparent. For instance, the scene where the zombie cat is on West’s back is pretty silly and plays like slapstick but the film really is a black comedy and this plays that up with its hokiness. However, the majority of the zombie effects are well handled and executed.

The cast is decent but it is Jeffrey Combs, as Herbert West, that steals the show and this was a launching pad for his career. He’s since gone on to be a horror icon and become an accomplished voice actor. He also had some great roles in different Star Trek television series, most notably as various incarnations of the villain Weyoun on Deep Space Nine.

Barbara Crampton holds her own and she had to deal with some seriously bizarre and uncomfortable situations in this movie. Props to her for that.

For many, Re-Animator is a bonafide horror classic. It’s a really good film from its era but I’m not as gung ho of a fan of it as many are. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate it but there are many more films from its time that I would put ahead of it. Still, it is effective and has had a lasting impact. It also spawned a few sequels, which I will review in the near future.

Rating: 7.5/10