The Anatomy of a Remake: House on Haunted Hill

house on haunted slide - The Anatomy of a Remake: House on Haunted Hill

The Anatomy of a Remake: House on Haunted Hill

The scream heard around the world in every theater came before the title even announced 1959’s B&W American Horror film, House on Haunted Hill.  It was directed and produced by legendary B-movie  director William Castle (13 Ghosts 1960, Strait-Jacket 1964) and co-produced and written by Robb White (The Tingler 1959, 13 Ghosts 1960), and shot in the Los Angeles area at the renowned Ennis-Brown house for exteriors, Los Feliz, and sound stages for Allied Artists Studios. As he was known for, Castle’s gimmick for House on Haunted Hill was to have a pulley system that would release a skeleton to fly over and scare the hell out of audiences at key moments during the film of some theaters. Its name was Emergo.  House on Haunted Hill was the first film of two, the other being 1959’s The Tingler, Castle teamed up with the legendary Vincent Price. Price, already an established character actor, but one who had recently begun his foray into the Horror genre, House on Haunted Hill would create a path for Price that he would become synonymous with for the rest of his life.

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House on Haunted Hill (1959) still

Forty years later, William Malone (Tales from the Crypt: Only Skin Deep 1994, FeardotCom 2002) directed an unexpected remake, produced by original director William Castle’s daughter, Terry A. Castle, from a script written by Dick Beebe (Rocky Marciano 1999, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 2000) for Dark Castle Entertainment.  Like Castle, Dark Castle Entertainment had a gimmick for 1999’s House on Haunted Hill, though, not as elaborate as to make the movie interactive.  Still, patrons received scratch-offs, giving them chances to win money like the characters in the film could win money if they made it through the night in the asylum.  In addition, Malone’s House on Haunted Hill pays tribute to the original’s star in star Geoffrey Rush’s (Shine 1996, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl 2003) Steven H. Price.  That said, the remake had huge shoes to try to fill.

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Still from House on Haunted Hill (1999)

1959’s House on Haunted Hill revolves around Price’s quirky millionaire Frederick Loren throwing a party for his wife, Carol Ohmart’s (Born Reckless 1958, Caxambu! 1964) Annabelle, who he has a love/hate relationship with, in a supposed haunted house he rented from Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook: The Maltese Falcon 1941, Shane 1953).  Loren has invited four guests along with Pritchard to stay the night in the house with the promise of $10,000…if they survive.  Are the goings-on an inside job, or is the house truly haunted?  Skeleton has a cameo as himself.

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Still from House on Haunted Hill (1959)

In 1999’s version, the story centered around Rush’s amusement park mogul Steven M. Price throwing a party for his spoiled wife, Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen: GoldenEye 1995, X-Men 2000), who he has a more hate than love relationship with, in an old asylum he rented from Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan: A Night at the Roxbury 1998, Undead or Alive 2007).  Price offers $1 million to each of the five people there to stay the night…if they survive.  If they leave or die, their share gets added to the survivors’ or survivor’s share.  Will anybody survive?

Aside from essentially the same storyline with some scenes being shot-for-shot, there is one main plot point difference, there is no ambiguity in whether the asylum’s haunted in the remake like there is in the original.  Furthermore, everything has been modernized from the use of cells to the prize going from $10 thou to $1 mill.  Also, the original uses all practical effects, done by Herman E. Townsley and Daniel Hays, not a whole company, with make-up by Jack Dusick. The more modern film used CGI, done by KNB Effects, for some sequences as well as using effects done in other films such as 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder with the body twitch effect.  Walking Dead’s Gregory Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman were in charge of special effects with make-up done by 1981’s Ghost Story’s Dick Smith for his final project.

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Still from House on Haunted Hill (1999)

In addition, there is no gore in the original as opposed to the remake’s abundant gore…going so far as to have a vat of blood in one sequence.  There is also nudity in the remake, whereas the original has none.  Even though the two leads are different actors, their portrayals of the millionaires are close, but different.  Price’s portrayal of Loren is subdued, a slow burn like the film’s pacing, whereas Rush’s portrayal of Price pays homage to Price in look and a bit of suaveness in his manic demeanor.  The pacing for the remake has peaks and valleys, but mostly clips.  The remake does give the asylum’s back story in the film in haunting, sometimes grotesque scenes of torture taken from Nazi medical experiments as opposed to Pritchard explaining the house’s history in exposition.  While the original was wildly successful, amassing approximately $1.5 million on an estimated $200,000 budget, the remake, was not as successful, though still came out in the green with $40.8 mill on a $37 mill budget.  Both films are unique in their own way, and in essentially telling the same story…just to a different generation looking to spend the night at the houses on haunted hill.

House on Haunted Hill - The Anatomy of a Remake: House on Haunted Hill
Allied Artists
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Warner Bros.

Purchase House on Haunted Hill (1959) on DVD on Amazon
Purchase House on Haunted Hill (1999) on DVD on Amazon

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Jason Rhode
Jason Rhode
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Jason, a Horror and Children Story writer and artist specializing in alternative art, was adopted from the Bronx, NY, and currently lives in Midland, TX with his wife, Joey, and their two dogs, Chewy and Hollywood.

  • Avatar
    Posted at 19:18h, 19 September Reply

    I watched the remake years ago, and – something that is always a potential blashemy – I liked it thoroughly. Okay, the german writing on the cellar walls of a former mental hospital in the US was somewhere between obnoxious and silly – especially once you figure out that it is a horribly mangled “stand away from the windows when closing”. On the _cellar_ walls.

    But apart from that – it had great actors (Geoffrey Rush!), clever ideas, good pacing, some good laughs and great chemistry between some of the actors. The scares were effective, but what I liked a lot more was the wonderful amount of supsense the movie managed to cook up before the scares came up, when our heroes are just wandering through a spooky house and you are waiting for _something_ horrible to show up, or happen, or jump out of them every second.

    Good soundtrack, too.

    The original – nah. I’ve seen plenty of movies from that area, and some with Vincent Price, which I enjoyed a lot. But here the female characters were too two-dimensional and the scares had lost their bite with time. (For me, at least.)

    Each to his own. For me, the remake is worth both watching and re-watching and would have deserved more success. Bonus: the movie already ditched the (in 1999 still common) clichée of killing off the one afro-american character 30 minutes into the movie.

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