House on Haunted Hill 1959 vs House on Haunted Hill 1999 [spoilers]

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Cast: Vincent Price, Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, old crone, floating skeleton

Plot of the 1959 original: A wealthy guy with an unspecified job invites five people to stay the night with him in a haunted house on a hill. If they survive the night, they’ll each get ten thousand dollars, which was quite a lot of money in 1959. If they don’t survive the night then Vincent Price will surely go to prison for accessorising murder. Actually, I wasn’t clear on that part.

Plot of the 1999 remake: A wealthy guy who ironically owns amusement parks invites five people to stay the night in an over-stylised house that is haunted by CGI. If they survive the night, they’ll each get $1,000,000, which is enough, I guess. If they don’t survive the night then Geoffrey Rush will surely go to prison for copying the plot of the original.

Subplot of both films: Vincent Price and his wife hate each other and it’s implied that he has killed three previous wives. Geoffrey Rush seems a bit nicer, though he does try to strangle Famke Janssen at one point.

Other subplots: An old, blind housekeeper feels bored of life and decides to stop brushing her hair, hang around the basement walking slowly in and out of shadow and skateboard past the second lead actress without saying a word.

A woman who writes a newspaper column has a vision of the future where she is in a remake of this film and wanders off alone into the basement and gets slaughtered. When she snaps out of her trance, she grabs a gun and clings to the other characters like a manacle.

A hot-headed pilot meets a girl he can boss around and so looks for opportunities to impress her and keep her away from the other men in the film. At one point, he locks her in her room, promising he’ll come back later and check on her. In a different film, this could’ve been very creepy.

A nervous man drinks a hell of a lot but only seems to get more nervous, which is surely the opposite of what should happen.

A new media woman mistakes herself for the lead female character and goes exploring in the basement alone.

A token black guy looks around, sees blindingly white faces looking back at him and prepares for death. An hour later, after no one else steps up and Geoffrey Rush seems to be insane, he realises that not only might he get through this thing, he might also get to have sex on a cliff ledge with the blonde woman.

The blonde actress [Ali Larter…man, what happened to her?] reads the script and wishes she was called Geoffrey Rush.

Famke Janssen reads the script and imagines herself as Bette Davis.

A doctor follows his dick into a vat of acid.

Another doctor follows his dick into an unconvincing double-cross.

Remake vs original

Usually, when there are two versions of the same film, I tend to prefer the one I see first. For example, The Departed was better than Infernal Affairs because I had no idea what would happen at the end.

Robocop the original was better than the remake because it wasn’t a piece of shit and had Clarence Bodicker in it.

Straw Dogs was better than the remake because it had a main character who actually looked small and weak.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was better than the remake because…

Actually, the original’s usually better, isn’t it?

I watched the remake of House on Haunted Hill before the original, which should’ve turned out badly for the Vincent Price version as remakes usually hyper-charge everything, making the original seem slow and meandering.

But it didn’t happen this time.

Because they’re basically two different plots crammed into the same premise. And, obviously, the Vincent Price version is a lot classier and more intelligent.

The differences don’t start early…in fact, it’s only when the original’s finished that you realise how different it is. That’s because the main variance is: almost no one dies in the original. The old woman who writes a column for the newspaper gets cursed by the blood dripping from the ceiling pretty early on, and I kept waiting for her to wander off alone for no good reason and get stabbed, but it never happens.

In the remake, the analogue character for this woman, the new media reporter, wanders off into the basement and gets killed in a shitty set piece, as regular as modern horror clockwork. It’s not scary because you know it’s about to happen, and how can you be scared if you don’t even know her yet?

Actually, is ‘analogue character’ the right description for that? I’m not sure…I think I heard it somewhere before but for some reason it doesn’t seem right.

I’ll check later.

So, the older woman in the original survives the whole film. So does the nervous caretaker guy and the other two and even Vincent Price. This to me is perfect horror, even though it’s not particularly scary, as it makes you unsure. It doesn’t follow the modern formula of killing someone every ten minutes, it actually gives characters the consistent ability to use logic and intelligence…no one wanders off alone if they can help it, and they each have a gun to cling on to…

The only stupid thing they do in the original is go separately to their rooms, though that’s mitigated slightly by the fact that they all have guns.

Cynical remakes

The remake is more cynical, in its plot and in its characters, as they never truly act like they’re in a deadly haunted house. That’s why the first woman wanders off on her own…she doesn’t seem to think anything can happen to her, which is fine in its own way, maybe I would do the same thing, but then again I probably wouldn’t if the basement looked like a fucking abattoir for humans.

I can’t decide if the characters in the remake follow their brains or not…when they realise people are dying they do panic and generally stick together, but it still feels contrived in some way…I think the problem might be the concept of each film.

Concept of the 1959 original: there are no ghosts, it’s all a plot by the wife and then Vincent Price to kill the other.

Concept of the 1999 remake: there are lots of ghosts, because the house used to be an asylum/torture palace run by Jeffrey Combs.

When you look at the concepts and the plot synopsis of both films, you’d think that the remake would be the scarier one. It’s the film that has people dying, it’s the film that has creepy doctor ghosts jerk-walking across CCTV screens, it’s the film where the house looks like a horrific place…and yet…

The characters don’t ever get the time to feel believably, slowly anxious enough to worry for their lives, they just run around going from plot point to plot point in blind panic.

There’s no time for any of them to reflect on or appreciate each death or the fact that they might die next.

And we never get the chance to get to know them as people. The new media woman is the worst example…you can guess straight away that she’ll be the first to go, and all she does is act like a new media person, carrying a camera everywhere. They may have well as just called her New Media, because she never does or says anything normal, whereas in the original, the older media woman has normal conversations with all the other characters.

She is not defined by her job and that’s why she survives because she actually functions as a normal human being.

What else?

The original takes a different tack completely. It treats all its characters as intelligent people [though the pilot guy is a bit hot-headed and creepy in places] and they discuss and analyse each new turn of events as it happens. When the wife hangs herself, the whole rest of the film is a reaction to it: the characters are shocked, they suspect each other of murder, they discuss it, they go to their rooms and lock their doors and plan to wait there until morning. In this film, death means something, it’s not just the surviving characters screaming, oh shit, she’s dead and then five minutes later oh shit, he’s dead, it’s a oh shit, she’s dead, we’ve got to protect ourselves and not take any stupid risks otherwise we might die too and even though I’m a minor character in this film I’m supposed to be a real person in my own mind so I should act like I want to survive this thing, yeah.

I don’t know why more horror films don’t follow this path…killing characters in a set piece is not frightening, but keeping an audience guessing and on edge by showing characters afraid for their lives is.

The Price is right The Power of Vincent

Geoffrey Rush is a good actor, quite charismatic too, but he doesn’t have a voice anywhere near as spectacular as Vincent Price’s. He can’t really do sinister in this film either. Perhaps that’s why they make his character nicer…when his wife dies for real, he tries to help her…okay, he tries to strangle her too, but let’s forget about that…whereas, in the original, Vincent Price forces his wife into a vat of acid with a floating skeleton. He is not a good man, he’s a murderer, even if his wife was just as bad and might’ve deserved what she got.

Actually, Rush was quite sinister in ‘Elizabeth’ as the assassin, so he can do it, but the script just doesn’t give him the right route in this one. It tips the scales towards shit-looking mist monsters instead of a palpable sense of dread, which means the plot has to end with the characters running away from smoke tentacles as opposed to Geoffrey Rush killing his wife and the doctor and challenging the police to prove he did anything wrong.

Shouldn’t remakes follow their own path?

They should if the original was dumb, or if they can come up with something equally creepy, but not if they’re gonna do something like this. I really don’t know what the writers or the director were thinking when they wrote the remake…the jerky doctor ghost on CCTV was quite creepy, but if you base your whole plot around CGI and jump scares then you’re gonna have a film that doesn’t last in anyone’s head beyond the cinema release.

Why not actually try to inject some dread into the thing? You can still kill people, but at least make each of them intelligent enough to protect themselves and fear for their safety.

But then, it’s really much, much better if you don’t kill anyone, at least not until the end. Keep the audience guessing instead. It’s worked for a lot of horror films…Blair Witch Project springs to mind, but there are lots of others…

Ah, Rosemary’s Baby…that’s another one. Great sense of dread without resorting to death set pieces…why don’t more modern horror films do this?

Mis-shapes, mistakes…

As much as I love the original, it doesn’t make much sense in a few places. Some are huge plot points, others trivial, but they’re still there…

i] What is the old crone doing coming out of the shadow and then disappearing again? The explanation is she’s the blind housekeeper, but that doesn’t mean she should be acting in such a creepy way.

ii] The old crone also seems able to float through the air the second time she appears…is this ever explained?

iii] How the hell did the “dead wife” float towards the other woman’s bedroom window? The doctor later explains that it was them that set it up, but how exactly did they set all that up and make the rope move of its own accord? They would’ve needed some kind of crane hanging from the roof at least…perhaps not impossible, but very unlikely.

iv] How did the wife get to know the doctor? Vincent Price supposedly invited the people at random, so she either already knew the doctor and suggested it to Vincent or she found out who he invited, seduced the doctor and then persuaded him to join her plot…both are pretty ridiculous, though the first one makes more sense as it allows Vincent to know about their plot and foil them at the end…but then again, if he knew his wife knew the doctor then the wife would also suspect that he would know about their plot…

v] Did the wife not realise she was walking backwards slowly into a vat of acid?

A lot of these points are close to the ‘it may not be convincing, but we’ve covered all our bases’ style of plot creation. This is similar to most films that rely on a huge twist…the Town that Dreaded Sundown remake is a good recent example of this. How did the killers first get to know each other and start talking about murder? No idea, it just happened, and that’s what the film tells us in voiceover. Yeah, it makes enough sense for us not to be able to reject it outright, but it doesn’t make enough emotional sense for us to really believe it.

What else?

The remake of House on Haunted Hill is watchable but about as scary as Bridget Fonda holding a pencil.

The original isn’t scary exactly, but it’s a much better film because it’s a] character-driven and b] relies on the idea of ghosts to create dread instead of bringing ghosts to life as smoky, black tentacles.

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