In 1931 the mental patients at the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane revolt against the staff headed by the sadistic Dr. Richard Vannacutt. The patients start a fire which engulfs the building, killing all of the inmates and all but five of the staff.
In 1999, Evelyn Stockard-Price (Famke Janssen), a spoiled trophy wife, is in a disintegrating marriage with Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush), an amusement park mogul with a wicked sense of humor. At Evelyn's insistence, Price leases the house from the owner, Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), for her birthday party. She gives Price a lengthy guest list; he shreds it to spite her and then creates one of his own. Five guests arrive for the party - Jennifer Jenzen (Ali Larter), Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), Melissa Margaret Marr (Bridgette Wilson), Dr. Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), and Pritchett himself. The guests are not the ones Price invited and neither Evelyn nor Price know who they are. Despite this, Price continues the party's theme, offering $1 million to each guest who stays in the house and survives until morning. Those who die forfeit their $1 million to the survivors.
The security gates are tripped, locking everyone inside. After finding some hand guns, Jennifer, Eddie and Pritchett decide to take one of the guns and search the basement for the machinery which controls the gates. Price believes the trap is a stunt organized by Evelyn. As Eddie and Jennifer explore the dungeon-like basement, Jennifer confesses to Eddie that her real name is Sara Wolfe, and that she's an out-of-work assistant to the real Jennifer Jenzen. She attended the party in Jennifer's place because she needed the prize money. However, the two are separated, and Sara is nearly drowned in a tank of blood by a ghost impersonating Eddie, though the real Eddie arrives in time to save her.
Melissa disappears when she wanders off in the basement, leaving behind a massive trail of blood. Price visits his assistant Schechter, who is supposed to be managing the party stunts, but finds him horribly mutilated. On the surveillance monitor he sees the ghost of Dr. Vannacutt walking around with a bloody scalpel. Shortly after, Evelyn dies in front of the others, when they find she has been strapped to an electroshock therapy table. Furious, Price pulls a gun on the guests, demanding to know which one of them killed his wife. Sara nearly shoots him, but Eddie knocks him out before either one can kill the other. The remaining guests lock Price in the "Saturation Chamber", an archaic device that Vannacut used to treat schizophrenics. Blackburn volunteers to stay behind to guard Price, but when the others leave he turns the chamber on, leaving Price to be tortured by the moving images and ghostly hallucinations until it drives him catatonic.
Meanwhile, Sara and Eddie find Vannacut's office. Inside, they find a portrait of all the head staff and realize that all the party guests are descendants of the five surviving staff from the 1931 fire. Pritchett explains that the spirits themselves created the guest list by hacking into Price's computer. The only exception is Blackburn, whose name does not appear among the staff.
Blackburn is revealed as Evelyn's lover and Evelyn in fact faked her death by electrocution. Together the two are plotting to frame Price for the murders, hoping one of the party will kill him in self defense. Evelyn stabs Blackburn to add another victim to the mix and releases a delirious Price from the chamber. Sara discovers Price covered in blood and Blackburn's head hanging from the door of the Saturation Chamber. Believing that he is Blackburn's murderer, Sara shoots him. After the others return upstairs, Evelyn approaches Price to gloat, and Price, protected by a bullet-proof vest, attempts to kill Evelyn. The two scuffle before Price throws her through a decaying door. Inside the rotting room, the two realize they just stumbled upon the evil core of the house. The Darkness – a dark, shape-shifting creature composed of the spirits in the house – awakens and begins to take form. Evelyn is captured and killed by the Darkness. Trying to escape the monstrous apparition, Price stumbles upon the remains of Melissa, neatly dissected and arranged as an anatomical display.
The Darkness emerges in front of Price, revealing that it is composed of "everyone who died and is responsible". Pritchett is killed by The Darkness, allowing Price to evade it. Price tells Sara and Eddie not only that Pritchett was right, but that the house really is alive and deduces that the only way to get out is through the attic. The three flee as The Darkness begins to seep through the house, manipulating the walls and shattering the floors as it chases them. Price activates a pulley that reveals an opening in the window of the attic. When the Darkness seeps into the attic, Price sacrifices himself to give the others time to escape, but the Darkness closes the iron gate after Sara escapes, trapping Eddie inside.
As the Darkness prepares to assimilate Eddie, Pritchett's ghost appears and opens the iron gate. The Darkness is distracted by Pritchett long enough for Eddie to escape out of the window to Sara. Pritchett's ghost and the Darkness then both fade away. As Sara and Eddie watch the sun rise, they notice an envelope on the ledge. It contains all five $1 million checks, made out to cash.
Rush's name "Price" as well as Rush's appearance is a nod to actor Vincent Price, who played the similar lead role, then named Frederick Loren in the original film.
William Castle's daughter Terry Castle served as co-producer on the film. The film was shot in late 1998 and early 1999 in Los Angeles, California, with exteriors of the house's driveway being shot in Griffith Park near the Griffith Park Observatory. The "Terror Incognita" rollercoaster at Price's amusement park featured in the beginning of the film is actually The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster at Universal Studios Florida.
The unethical psychiatry methods and experimental procedures featured in the film were loosely based on medical experiments conducted by the Nazis.
Some reviewers noted that the surrealistic jerking, twitching effect of the ghosts featured in the film was similar to the effects in Adrian Lyne's film Jacob's Ladder (1990). The special effects in the film were designed by Gregory Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, with additional makeup design by Dick Smith in his last film credit. One of the monster figures featured in the film was a creation of Smith's that was intended to be used in Ghost Story (1981) but was ultimately not featured. The tentacular morphing mass of ghosts featured at the film's climax was designed by KNB Effects using CGI, and was inspired by the visuals of H.P. Lovecraft's novels, as well as resembling the Rorschach inkblots used in psychiatry.
Several key scenes were taken out of the final cut of the film. This included an exposition scene in which Sara Wolfe (Ali Larter) is fired by her boss, Jennifer Jenzen (played by Debi Mazar), the feisty vice president of a motion picture company. Two versions of the scene were shot, both taking place on a film set where Wolfe hands Jenzen a bag delivered for her; inside is a music box with a jack-in-a-box-trigger which cuts the handler's finger. Jenzen throws the box in the garbage, and Wolfe discovers the invitation to Price's party inside of it. This is why in the final cut of the film, Wolfe hesitantly introduces herself to Price as Jennifer Jenzen; in the final cut of the film, she later confesses to Eddie Baker about posing as Jenzen in order to receive her $1,000,000, but details surrounding the circumstances in which she received the invitation are sparsely revealed.
Another scene removed from the film last-minute, according to director Malone, was a scene in which Wolfe falls through a collapsing floor when she and Baker are being chased by the Darkness. After falling two stories below, Wolfe awakens in a subterranean crematorium filled with the ashes and corpses of the hospital's dead patients. There, she is attacked by reanimated corpses who rise out of the ashes, terrorizing her and tearing off her overcoat. As a result of the scene's removal, there remains a continuity error in the final cut of the film, in which Wolfe's overcoat disappears from her body in-between scenes.
A final epilogue scene completing the Jennifer Jenzen story arc was also filmed, featuring Jenzen arriving at the house, which she has now inherited. As she enters the front door, a bloodcurdling scream is heard, and the realtor is revealed to be Dr. Vannacutt. Director Malone said the scene ultimately was removed after the cutting of Jenzen's exposition scene, as well as for having a comical tone that did not fit with the rest of the film.
All three deleted scenes from the film were included on the 2000 Warner Bros. Home Video release of the film on DVD in the bonus features section.
House on Haunted Hill premiered in Los Angeles on October 27, 1999 at the Mann Village Theater. Stars Famke Janssen, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter and Bridgette Wilson were in attendance with director William Malone, as well as the film's producers Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler. The film was released theatrically in the United States two days later, on October 29, 1999, opening #1 at the box office and earning over $15 million in sales its opening weekend.
In keeping with the spirit of William Castle's tradition of releasing each of his films with a marketing gimmick, Warner Bros. and Dark Castle supplied movie theatres with scratch-off tickets that would be given to anyone who paid to see the film. The scratch-off ticket would give each movie patron a chance to win money much like the characters in the film.
Dark Castle had originally intended to release each of their films with a gimmick much like William Castle had done. They had considered releasing the remake Thirteen Ghosts in 3-D with special glasses similar to the ones used by the characters in the film. These plans were scrapped and House on Haunted Hill remains the only film released with a special marketing gimmick.
Although they found the film entertaining and scary, House on Haunted Hill received mixed reviews from critics; they criticized the special effects and the story lines. In comparison, of the original's overwhelmingly positive score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, the House on Haunted Hill remake did not fare as well. Based on 57 reviews, the film received a score of 28%, with an average rating of 4.5/10. The site's consensus reads, "Unsophisticated and unoriginal film fails to produce scares." On Metacritic the film has a score of 28 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called it a "gutsy remake," saying, "House on Haunted Hill is the kind of horror movie that's not a bit scary and quite a bit gross. Yet it's also mildly, even pleasantly, entertaining, at least by the diminished standard set by this summer's The Haunting... [it] sets up hostile relationships between the characters, which allows the audience to wonder who is doing what to whom. Finding out is not so interesting, but getting there isn't so bad." Maitland McDonough of Film Journal gave the film a similar review, saying "The proceedings are all utterly conventional, but watching them unfold is mildly diverting if you're in the right frame of mind, as many moviegoers apparently were over the Halloween weekend," also favorably comparing the film to Jan de Bont's remake of The Haunting, which was released several months prior.
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B- rating, calling the film "trash, but creepier than you expect." Variety gave the film a positive review, noting the film's "cheap scares," but saying: "Given the irredeemable cheesiness of the original 1958 "House on Haunted Hill," the makers of the remake had nowhere to go but up. So it's not exactly a stunning surprise to find the new horror opus is a slicker and scarier piece of work."
In their review, The New York Times criticized the film, calling it a "sorry reincarnation" of the original, and said: "This film wastes the talents of actors like Geoffrey Rush and Peter Gallagher in hollow roles and relies heavily on its sets and special effects to do the work that should have been accomplished by its director and writer." The Austin Chronicle echoed a similar sentiment, saying: "The nicest thing I can say about this remake of William Castle's 1958 shocker is that Geoffrey Rush, god bless him, sure can do a fine imitation of Vincent Price's original mustache, even better than John Waters' -- which is no mean feat."
The soundtrack for the film was commercially released on the label Varèse Sarabande, containing selections from the original score by Don Davis.Track listing
- Main Title
- Pencil Neck
- Hans Verbosemann
- House Humongous
- Funky Old House
- No Exit
- Gun Control
- Price Pestiferous
- Misty Misogamy
- Coagulatory Calamity
- Melissa in Wonderland
- Sorry, Tulip
- Struggling to Escape
- Soirée a Saturation
- On the House
- Dead But Nice
- Blackburn's Surprise
- Encountering Mr. Blackburn
- The Price Petard
- Epiphanic Evelyn
- The Corpus Delecti Committee Meeting
- Price in Perpetuity
- The Beast with the Least
The song Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Marilyn Manson is not on the movie soundtrack but is played during the scene lead up to the Asylum and end credits. Piano Quartet in G Minor Opus 25 by Johannes Brahms was definitely not composed for the movie but is the 5th track on the soundtrack album.