House on Haunted Hill Comparison

(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)

In 1959 director William Castle, horror huckster and impresario, released House on Haunted Hill. A throwback to the old dark house thrillers of the 1930s with a devilish performance by ‘50s horror icon, Vincent Price, House on Haunted Hill is the gold standard when it comes to Castle’s work. Forty years later, Hollywood came calling to redo Castle’s films. Dark Castle Entertainment was a studio initially created to solely remake Castle’s films and they started with his best. The 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill boasted an impressive cast and a liberal use of late-’90s CGI. So how do both hold up 60 and 20 years later, respectively? Let’s dive into a dueling edition of Classically Contemporary. 

The Plot: Each movie follows the same premise involving a millionaire who invites five strangers to a birthday party for his wife. The strangers are promised a large amount of money if they can survive the night in the titled house on haunted hill. But when things go bump in the night the group realizes no one is safe.

Haunted Houses and Murder Mysteries and ‘90s Horror

In watching both movies back-to-back a few things become readily apparent, and we’re not talking about the lack of floating heads in the ‘99 iteration. Castle enjoyed looking at the history of a location, whether that was in this or the horror film he’d make the year after this, the similarly themed 13 Ghosts (itself remade by Dark Castle in 2001). Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Watson Pritchard, the lone survivor of the house whose father and grandfather were killed, and though he’s the character to remind us ghosts are real much of the narrative plays like a murder mystery. Once the crew is assembled at Hill House (no, not that one), they’re quickly trapped and forced to wait out the evening. 

There’s a general sense of foreboding within the film, but everyone has their tongue firmly planted in cheek. In fact, other than the movie’s nice girl, Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), there’s a distinct air of nonchalance to everything. The film draws inspiration from 1932’s The Old Dark House and 1939’s The Cat and the Canary, blending the supernatural with the distinctly mysterious. Like any good Scooby Doo episode the other characters all believe there’s a logical explanation and, for the most part, there is. Nora is being gaslit by Annabelle Loren (Carol Ohmart), the wife of millionaire Frederick Loren (Price), in the hopes that Nora will kill Frederick and allow Annabelle to be free with her husband’s money. 

The film’s conclusion, wherein Annabelle believes she’s seen the skeleton ghost of her deceased husband and falls into a vat of acid, is also solved logically. Frederick, wearing a bizarre contraption of his own invention, used the skeleton to scare Annabelle. Yet the film ends with Pritchard reminding the audience that the ghosts are still restless and could be “coming for you.” The movie never firmly settles on its own tone and so hopes to inhabit all elements of the horror genre, from the haunted house film to the murder mystery, but always with an eye towards reminding you that there are some things that defy explanation.

“The House is Alive”

There’s certainly no denying in the remake that ghosts are real and they’re mad as can be. The 1999 reboot gives Hill House so much agency and history that it’s worthy of a separate film. Gone is the small-scale murders Hill House has been privy to and in its place is the Nazi-esque experimentation of Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs), overseer of a mental asylum where a mob of angry patients went wild. Vannacutt trapped everyone inside the house, killing them and creating a built-in terror trap filled with vengeful spirits. As if that’s not enough, our new Watson Pritchard (Chris Kattan) brings up the “darkness,” the soul’s otherworldly soul that seems separate from Vannacutt and his patients. 

All of this leads towards making the house an omnipotent entity, able to “travel” through dial-up to hack the computer of theme park magnate Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) and change the invitations to those it wants to see at the party. Once everyone arrives there’s no ambiguity about what’s happening: the house is in charge and the ghosts have definitely come to the party with murder in mind. House on Haunted Hill would be the progenitor of other horror features like 2001’s Ghost Ship

The Battle of the Exes (with an Appearance By Vincent Price)

Much like the house, the characters in the remake are also presented as more extreme versions of their original incarnations. The kind-hearted Nora Manning transitions to the kind though somewhat mercenary Sara (Ali Larter). Where Nora was the sole breadwinner in her family and worked for Frederick Loren, Sara is the beaten-down assistant to a successful producer. Recently fired, Sara gets Price’s invitation and goes in her boss’ stead. Marking the passage of time, gossip columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) becomes television personality – with dreams of entering the burgeoning field of reality shows – Melissa Margaret Marr (Bridgette Wilson). 

But what stays the same is the battling couple that invites everyone to Haunted Hill. The Lorens of the original movie are characters ripped out of a film noir. Annabelle and Frederick hate each other, but it’s a Gothic-esque hate where they trade catty barbs. There are questions as to whether Frederick’s paranoia with regards to Annabelle is just that. They’re calm and cool, but it’s apparent they hate each other’s guts. It helps that Vincent Price portrays Frederick with such a sophisticated mien that hides an inner glee, particularly when Annabelle gets what’s coming to her. That’s all pretty much removed with the Prices (the film’s main homage to its predecessor). Rush and Famke Janssen are just as witty, but there’s no doubt each could easily murder the other. Evelyn is the typical scheming gold digger while Steven is cold and unfeeling. That’s not to say the fun is gone, but it reminds the audience that the late-’90s was all about extremity, even in love and murder.

In all honesty, each movie has its strong points and House on Haunted Hill is a great example of one plotline existing in two separate movies. Each is its own entity and fun depending on what you’re aiming for. If you’re looking for a spooky murder mystery with a touch of ghostly interference the ‘59 version is for you. If you’re looking for blood, murder, and thrills then it’s 1999 all the way! 

Cool Posts From Around the Web: